Is Your Team Keeping You Up at Night?

HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you.

Is a team you manage keeping you up at night? Managing difficult personalities, stalled productivity, and conflict are inevitable parts of leadership. But how do you know if your leadership is part of the problem?

Melanie Parish says that many leaders see problems on their team as an external issues without realizing how they impact their team. Parish is a leadership coach and the author of the book, The Experimental Leader: Be a New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators. In this episode, she takes questions from listeners who are struggling to manage tough teams. She offers advice for what to do when you lead a team that refuses to follow company processes… or when your growing team of managers is clamoring to weigh in on key decisions. She also has suggestions for improving morale on a frustrated team.

This episode originally aired on Dear HBR: in June 2020. Here it is.

DAN MCGINN: Welcome to Dear HBR: from Harvard Business Review. I’m Dan McGinn.

ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Work can be frustrating. But it doesn’t have to be. We don’t need to let the conflicts get us down.

DAN MCGINN: That’s where Dear HBR: comes in. We take your questions, look at the research, talk to the experts, and help you move forward. Today we’re talking about managing tough teams with Melanie Parish. She’s a leadership coach and the author of the new book, The Experimental Leader. Melanie, welcome to the show.

MELANIE PARISH: I’m so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

DAN MCGINN: Now, in your coaching work, how common is this, that a leader is really struggling with a challenging team?

MELANIE PARISH: I think it happens all the time, and there’s so many different challenges. They circle. You know, you have one challenge one week, and another challenge another week. I think that’s kind of the work of leadership.

ALISON BEARD: And difficult teams are so much more challenging than difficult individuals. Right?

MELANIE PARISH: Well, there’s lots of moving parts with a team. And difficult individuals make the team harder. So there are sort of nested dolls or something with the way that the problems grow.

DAN MCGINN: Are leaders often right when they say, this is a challenging team that I’m dealing with? Or do they often overlook the fact that some of the problems may be caused by their own leadership style or behavior?

MELANIE PARISH: Often, leaders see their teams as an external problem, instead of seeing themselves as part of that system. And so they may try to solve the team problem. What they’re missing is how they impact that team, and how the productivity of that team is bottlenecked or constrained by their own leadership.

DAN MCGINN: Ready for the first question?


ALISON BEARD: Dear HBR: I lead a team whose members are what in management terms you would call brilliant jerks. All my reports are at least four to five years more experienced than me. They’re very smart and motivated. Two of them are ex-Silicon Valley engineers. They outright reject things like the scrums or on-call support. I’ve gotten feedback that external groups avoid having conversations with my team members because of their outspoken, blunt behavior and tendency to reject the protocols. I want to get them to follow the minimum required company processes, but I also have a few reservations. I’m a female manager in a male-dominated industry. I already suffer from impostor syndrome. I’m not sure how to smooth these issues and get the team to accept me as a leader. What can I do?

MELANIE PARISH: Well, my initial reaction is, wow, this is just so rich with different challenges, and there’s different ways to look at it. I think the most forward challenge that I see is around the processes. I think that’s really interesting. This leader, when she takes over leading this team, really needs to think about focusing on being a good leader, as opposed to being the enforcer of the processes.

DAN MCGINN: That’s a great suggestion. It’s one I had not thought about, but it makes perfect sense based on my experience. So in our operation, there’s a separate person, not the leader, who’s the person who thinks about deadlines, and whether you filled out this form, and whether this process has been done right. So separating those roles out. If she’s going to implement that suggestion, she needs to designate somebody else to be this sort of deadline and process enforcer.

MELANIE PARISH: Or just to let it go for a while. It may not be her job to be the process enforcer. This team is a little bit rogue, and that happens in organizations. But I think her first step is to really focus on the relationship with this team. I would use a lot of curiosity with this team. If they’re not doing scrums, what are they doing to manage their workflow? A scrum is a solution, but what else is this team doing that serves that function on the team? So I would ask them to come up with their own function, rather than holding them accountable to a list of things.

ALISON BEARD: But she is getting pushback from other teams about the fact that they’re not following protocols, in addition to bad behavior. You know, not being fun people to work with, being jerks. So, part of me loves your advice to be hands-off in the beginning, and learn from them, etc. At the same time, for her to be seen as a successful manager, she does need to pull them along and find some middle ground between where they are and where the organization wants them to be.

MELANIE PARISH: Well, and where I get really concerned is, there seems to be sort of a culture of contempt in this organization. They’re contemptuous of others. They don’t follow the processes. And that would be actually the place that I might ask them to skill up. Because contempt breeds things like defensiveness and blame and stonewalling. Those are what John Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And when one comes out, the other horses all run in. And in this case, I actually have a concern about how contempt lives on this team. And if she can address that one piece, she might start to get some uptake in them collaborating more effectively in the organization.

DAN MCGINN: When I read about the culture in this group, I’m reminded of the HBO sitcom, Silicon Valley. There are a couple of really brilliant programmers who spend a lot of show rolling their eyes and displaying the kind of contempt that Melanie is talking about. They sort of have the attitude that they’re so talented that they’re sort of above the rules, and that can be really a hard dynamic because you need the person. They’re really valuable. You need to treat them in a way to get the best out of them. But at the same time, you do want them to sort of check the boxes that need to be checked. Right?

ALISON BEARD: I mean, the tension that I see is the fact that she can either be seen as a great leader by her team, and that would involve protecting them from the organization, letting them behave exactly as your describing, Dan, acknowledging their brilliance, letting them do what they want to do. Perhaps to be seen as a great leader by her bosses, she needs to rein them in and make them better colleagues. So Melanie, how does any manager, but particularly our letter writer, manage that tension?

MELANIE PARISH: Well, I think that one of the things she may want to do is to have a preliminary conversation as she moves into this role, to say, my long term strategy is that we work on processes. But my short term strategy is to develop strong relationships and to start to look at positive behaviors, like improving the positivity in this team, by calling them out on contempt. That’s actually one I would be a little heavy-handed about. There’s not very many things I’m heavy-handed about, but contempt is one of them. But I would reset the expectations looking up in this case, because if the organization sees her role as being a good leader, to manage throughput and to optimize throughput of the work of this team, then that’s great. If they see her job as to make this team become more compliant, I think she’s going to have a real problem. The other thing I would say is, to ask this team to look at where their throughput is constrained because of their contempt, because of their noncompliance, would be a really interesting conversation to have with them.

ALISON BEARD: So she needs to have a conversation both with her boss and with the team, but maybe a nicer conversation with the team?

MELANIE PARISH: Yeah, I think that her success depends on her becoming an insider to this team, rather than someone who’s going to spend their time prioritizing compliance from them.

DAN MCGINN: How should she deal with the gender dynamic here? Clearly, it’s in the forefront of her mind. It’s a male-dominated industry. She identifies imposter syndrome as something that’s holding her back. How would you address those issues?

ALISON BEARD: And the disparity between her experience and her reports’ experience.

MELANIE PARISH: I’ve worked a lot in tech, and one of my tricks is, when I walk into a senior tech team, I usually try to say the F word in the first ten minutes. [LAUGHTER] I don’t love that I have to do that, but I do it because I don’t want to be seen as an outsider. And as soon as I do it, they stop having to be careful around me as a woman leader. Not everyone will choose that strategy. But it is mine.

DAN MCGINN: My teenagers actually use that strategy all the time. They must have very successful business careers ahead of them. [LAUGHTER]

MELANIE PARISH: That’s right. That’s right. But she has to find a way to be an insider, to be curious about them and to allow them to teach her about what they’re doing that’s working, also allows her to be an insider. And I think, I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time on the gender dynamic, other than, she doesn’t want to make them careful about her.

ALISON BEARD: I’ll just chime in to say that all the research we publish shows that women, unfortunately, have to demonstrate both warmth and competence. So she needs to exactly show that she’s on their side, maybe a little cursing will help her do that. But then she also really needs to demonstrate competence and show them that she knows her stuff. She is four to five years less experienced. How does she go about proving her mettle?

MELANIE PARISH: I think that it’s kind of cloying when someone tries to come in and prove that they’re worthy. There are some really bad behaviors that can happen if you do that. So, treating people as if they are experts in the area that they’re experts, and not trying to out-expert them, I think is really important in a situation like this.

DAN MCGINN: Melanie, is there a case that she should investigate how much of this process is really useful and necessary, and maybe try to reduce how much of it her team needs to comply with?

MELANIE PARISH: I think that’s a really interesting way to get some buy-in. Like, to start with curiosity. Like, hey, we have all these processes. And I notice you don’t really follow them. What’s up with that? You know, just to sort of open that feedback loop. And the other thing that I think is really important to ask is, what else are they doing to serve the function as the thing that the organization put in place? So if they’re not doing a scrum, how are they sharing work? How are they communicating? How are they making things apparent to each other about who’s working on what? Or is it just that they don’t want to do those things, and so there’s nothing functional there? And I think that inquiry really could inform what she does with the processes going forward.

ALISON BEARD: And how does she approach her conversation with her own boss about changes that she wants to suggest for the entire organization?

MELANIE PARISH: Well, I think this is a really great place to use the language of experimentation, to just say, hey, I’m going to do an experiment, and what kind of feedback would you like as I’m learning? Can we meet weekly or biweekly? And I can share what I’m learning as I start working with this team.

DAN MCGINN: Alright, Alison, what’s our summery?

ALISON BEARD: So, we’d really like for this letter writer to approach her team with curiosity. How are they managing their workflow? What are their ambitions and goals? We want her to address why they feel contempt for the rest of the organization and its processes? But also focus on what they’re doing right. That way hopefully she can figure out a way to become an insider and develop deeper relationships with them. We want her to learn from them about what’s working by asking really smart questions, and in that way demonstrating warmth and competence. She’s going to need to manage up, also. That means she needs to have a conversation with her boss about what her role is. You know, is it to help the team, or corral it? She should probably suggest that maybe her first goal shouldn’t be to manage processes. Maybe she’ll be experimenting with this team, figuring out what works for them, and maybe bringing some of that learning back to the entire organization to approve broader performance.

DAN MCGINN: Dear HBR: My workplace dilemma is about managing an office when there’s no general manager. I joined a US tech company about four years ago to help grow one of their Asia Pacific offices. It was 25 employees then and now it is more than 100. I’m the office leader, but only about 30 employees report directly to me. When we were small, we had only a handful of managers. We tried to manage everything as a group, snacks, parking space, HR, IT, you name it. But now we have more than a dozen managers. We’ve not invited the new managers into decision making, because having so many people involved feels inefficient. But some of them feel like they should have a voice in managing the office. I’m very confident I can strike a good balance between company, employee, and personal interests. But I doubt some individuals. I feel being nosy and just want power. My goal is to be able to get feedback from these managers to continue to improve the office, but at the same time, not get bogged down by meetings and slow decisions, only to satisfy people’s ambition. We regularly survey our people on their happiness and well-being, and our office scores high compared to our other locations. I’m also worried about making changes that will impact our score. What should I do?

MELANIE PARISH: Well, I think this is just an organization that’s growing. And I think that the decisions that they’ve made for who needs to be in on each conversation may just need to be shifting a little bit as they grow.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, this letter made me think of a body of work that Ranjay Gulati, a professor at HBS, had done about scaling startups. And he focuses on the tension that this letter writer identifies. You know, we need to put in more structure. We need to put in more processes. But we don’t want to ruin morale and ruin the spirit and go away from what we were before when everyone was making all the decisions. But you know, his instinct is right in that you can’t have everyone in on everything anymore. And so, there has to be structure. I don’t know how they build that org chart, but it seems like they need to start doing it.

DAN MCGINN: Might he also try to get a sense of which decisions people feel really strongly and personally about that need to be a little bit more democratically made and a little bit more inclusive? And which ones are sort of less emotional issues? And he can be a little bit more autocratic about it? Would it make sense to almost try to prioritize where the emotion around the decision rights are?

MELANIE PARISH: Well, and I also think that the more, the better they do with feedback loops, the better they do with that communication, the better they’re going to score on their job satisfaction and happiness will be. It really is how well they manage the feeling in the organization that people have input.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, that is one of the things that Ranjay points to, is that in organizations that maintain their startup spirit, even as they scale, what they retain for employees is voice and choice. So autonomy about what projects they’re working on, and then also a voice in decision making. And you know, maybe in addition to, Dan, your idea of figuring out which decisions they care most about, there are technological solutions that you can employ to figure out how everyone feels about a particular issue, especially if it’s something like parking, you know, or snacks. And then for higher-level strategic decisions, maybe what he wants to do is let managers volunteer where they’re really interested and passionate and have good ideas. It’s almost like you have a task force or something advising the very senior leaders on what decisions should be made.

MELANIE PARISH: I would also caution against making this a personal problem, when it may actually be a structural problem in the business.

ALISON BEARD: So you’re worried about the line, but I doubt some individuals.

MELANIE PARISH: Yeah. I’m just a little concerned that sometimes we attribute a negative connotation or a negative belief to an individual when what they’re trying to do is solve a structure problem from a place that isn’t a place of power in an organization. So the person who’s a new leader coming in, it may look like they’re trying to elbow their way to the table, but it may actually be that because of their role in the organization, they have information that is needed at that decision-making table. And it may not be about personal power, but it may actually be that they’re putting the needs of the organization first. And so I’m just always cautious about that. If they have information that the decision-makers need, then pushing their way to the table may be because they have the best interests of the organization at heart.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, our listener seems very focused on his currently high office scores. But if the managers are unhappy going forward, that will seep down into their teams, and I bet the office scores will slip. So he does need to figure out a way to be more inclusive and not just keep decision making in the same set of hands that it’s always been in. So Dan, what are we telling him?

DAN MCGINN: Well, first, a lot of what he’s experiencing is very normal as an organization scales and increases its headcount. One thing he can do is to try to figure out what decisions matter most to people, and some things can be very emotional in an organization, and people really want to have their say, and get some buy-in. So maybe those are decisions where a little bit more socialization and a little bit less autocratic decision making might be beneficial to him. He can also use tools to try to give people voice in this. Even if decision making is tightening up near the top, you can still do things that make people feel like they’re being heard and feel like they have some influence on decisions. Lastly, we think that he needs to be careful not to assume ill intent here. There’s a case that there’s a good reason why they want to have input in some of these decisions. He’s just not seeing it. So we think it’s important that he thinks about the best and fairest way to run the organization while giving people a voice.

ALISON BEARD: Dear HBR: I’m heading a pilot that will take place at a call center. I don’t work there, but I’ve rolled the same pilot out in several other office environments. It’s worked to improve team connectivity, morale, and performance. I had my first meeting today with one of the teams that works at the call center. This will be the one that I work with, while the other nine teams will continue to work in their normal way. I definitely heard a lot of frustration, bitterness, and fear. Their supervisor is on board and is excited to try the pilot, but it seems that there’s a toxic work culture at this call center, and that’s making me anxious. My fear is that it will be impossible to raise the morale and work satisfaction when the bigger problem is the culture in which they work. I hope I can positively influence this team, and then they will start to influence everyone else in the call center. Is there a way to inoculate them? If there is, I’d love to try it. What should I do?

MELANIE PARISH: Well, I think this is a great place for an experiment. And to let the team in on the experiment. You know, when they’re sad and bitter, that can actually be the reason for trying something new. So you can actually, in systems work or team coaching, we call it ventilating the system, letting them speak and letting them say how horrible it is to be on this team. And that would be where I would start with a team like this. And then using that to say, hey, what’s the new experiment that we can try? We want to try something new. And I think that that will go a long way toward getting buy-in for this pilot.

ALISON BEARD: So you think that she needs to let them vent, and then swing the conversation to her pilot. Should she give them input in how the pilot’s going to go? She’s already done it many places before successfully.

MELANIE PARISH: I don’t think so. I think that, when I use this idea of ventilating the system, mostly it just helps me know where they are. Like, it helps you know who the players are. It helps you know, I’ve done 15-minute interviews with each person. You know, to just find out what’s on their mind. Usually, by the tenth one you do, it sounds exactly the same as everyone else’s. So you’re hearing the same thing over and over. It’s not that you’re actually gathering a lot of information. But what’s happening is that they’re getting a chance to speak. And then she can go ahead with her pilot that she’s done successfully many places before.

DAN MCGINN: Is there a risk that inviting people to give voice to negative feelings might provoke contagion, or might amplify them? I mean, what you’re suggesting sounds a little bit counterintuitive to me.

MELANIE PARISH: Yeah, I think that’s a really good question. I’ve never seen it happen. It actually, in every case that I’ve ever done it, it allows something new to happen.

ALISON BEARD: And I think the point is, she then turns the conversation to, gosh, this is terrible. I understand how all of you feel. The goods news is, I’m here to hopefully help. I’ve run this program in various other places. These are the results that I got. Will you guys join me in trying to make this a better place?

MELANIE PARISH: Yeah, I think that’s exactly it, that you’re actually using their ventilation as the reason for the pilot. They’ve been identified as the group to do this pilot with because we believe it will help.

ALISON BEARD: What about her concern that because the toxic culture is so pervasive, and these teams do interact with other teams, that she just doesn’t have a shot of insulating them against the rest of the organization while they’re doing this pilot? And hopefully, turning morale around?

MELANIE PARISH: Well, I think that that is actually true, that they will be bumping up against other team members who live in this culture. I think she has an opportunity, as she’s saying, while doing this pilot, to invite them to step back and to behave in new ways, to think in new ways, to insulate themselves, that they are special. They’re doing a pilot. They may want to self-manage how they allow change to happen in their team.

DAN MCGINN: Would it be useful for her to talk about the outcomes she’s seen in other organizations? That might feel compelling to me, the idea that if you do this, good things will happen.

MELANIE PARISH: Well, and the second part of doing an experiment is to collect data. So, if you go back to them, and you, again, ask them for that feedback look, you say, hey, we’re trying this experiment. We’ve tried it for two weeks. How is it feeling? What are you noticing What’s not working still? So you start to collect data from them and ask them to think those hard thoughts, so that they’re not just on autopilot, you know, sort of plunging into a low positivity situation. And that data collection will help inform what you try next with them.

ALISON BEARD: Is there a risk of, if this team is billed as special, and word gets out that they’re getting this chance to be on a happier team, and the rest of the organization isn’t, that that breeds its own new form of contempt.

MELANIE PARISH: Yeah, it could. I think that’s a fair point. You might not use the word special. Special’s a funny word for anyone. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think it’s very effective.

ALISON BEARD: But that’s really not our letter writer’s job. It’s the job of the managers in the organization to explain to everyone why this team was chosen above the others, and how they hope to roll out the program, should it be a success.

MELANIE PARISH: Right. And I do think that any time you’re looking to, where you intervene or experiment in an organization, you can get stopped in your tracks if you have to solve every problem in the organization because you’re doing an intervention in one area. So there may be things that happen, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be trying to experiment. There may be a second experiment, which is to roll this pilot out more universally in this organization. But the first step is to see what impact you can have with the pilot that you’re running?

DAN MCGINN: How much do you think she needs to manage expectations for this engagement and this pilot? And how delicate is that?

MELANIE PARISH: Yeah, I think sometimes expectations in a situation like this are really high. She doesn’t want to become the flavor-of-the-month or the person who comes in and is expected to be able to fix all of these problems. And we’re looking for forward movement. We’re looking for a 2% course correction that will change the direction of the organization over time. So I think setting those expectations with the supervisor is really important.

DAN MCGINN: Alison, what’s our summary?

ALISON BEARD: So first we’d like this listener to talk with this team she’ll be working with. Let them give voice to how horrible everything is. And then after they’ve vented, explain how her experiment will help them. She might want to site the results of previous pilots that she’s run and to join her in improving not just their team, but maybe also the broader organization. And she should suggest that they try to insulate themselves from the toxic culture around them. We also think she should collect data about what’s working and what’s not as it goes along, perhaps making tweaks as she goes. And we also want her to manage expectations with the supervisor and the organization in general, just outlining what they’re trying, what they’re hoping the results will be, but also what significant barriers they face to achieving that.

DAN MCGINN: Great. Melanie, thanks for coming on the show.

MELANIE PARISH: Oh, it was amazing to be here. It was so fun.

HANNAH BATES: That was leadership coach Melanie Parish in conversation with Alison Beard and Dan McGinn on Dear HBR:. Her book is The Experimental Leader: Be a New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators.

We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review.

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This episode was produced by Curt Nickisch, Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Erica Truxler, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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