December 18, 2019

Difficult teammate or intelligence agent? You decide

by Wendy Ryan in Leadership

Often we look at challenging team members as people who annoy us—as people who enjoy rocking the boat or making other people’s work lives more difficult than they need to be just for the heck of it. They may ask a lot of questions, challenge organizational decisions and fixate or complain about details that seem minor in the context of the bigger picture.

It doesn’t matter if you’re part of the leadership team or an individual contributor, challenging team members tend to develop a negative reputation. The first instinct for most of us is to want to find a way to avoid, shush or redirect them.

But I want you to shift your perspective. I want you to look at those difficult team members as intelligence agents, people who are actually giving us information that we should be thankful for.

That’s right. As much as those outspoken team members take up our time or seem to challenge us (and not always a good way), they’re actually spotlighting for us issues in the organization that we wouldn’t otherwise see or are trying to avoid dealing with, even though we shouldn’t.

They’re making it known that something is broken or will be in the future if we don’t pay attention to it and it’s up to leadership to recognize this, and then take action.

Ground Floor Perspective

One of the challenges that leaders have is that as they grow and develop, promoting from one department to the next or one management level to the next, they forget what organizational decision making feels like on the ground floor. Or things have changed technology and process-wise since they were there, so they’re no longer aware of how work actually gets done at that level now.

Getting input from those still in the trenches, especially if they’re perceived as “difficult,” is vital if top leadership is going to stay in-the-know. Often those on the ground floor are those closest to the customer and have novel ideas for solutions because of that. They may see the way the whole system works better than we can, helping leadership to more accurately put all the pieces together. As a leader, the outspoken team members who share their thoughts with you may seem difficult because you no longer remember what it’s like on the ground floor.

But getting that feedback is invaluable in any organization.

Beyond the Open Door

Traditionally, open door policies for executives don’t work, even when someone feels that their voice needs to be heard. Employees are afraid to speak up and meeting with someone in the C-suite one-to-one is nerve-wracking for almost everyone who is not at that level. Lowering the barriers for people—real and perceived—by developing systems and processes to counteract this effect is essential. And it can help to curb some of the on-the-spot feedback that throws a regular meeting off balance or that feels like complaining in the moment.

How easy are you making it for people to share information and ideas with their managers? A chain of command and role clarity around decision rights is important, but so is giving employees an opportunity to skip level, encouraging regular dialogue with those above their immediate manager. An internal place to share ideas and feedback, like a Slack channel, is a good starting point. A cadence of regular meetings where employees can meet informally with executives face-to-face is even better.

Without these procedures and avenues in place, you’re relying on a direct manager’s motivation and skillset to disseminate information in two directions—between the C-suite and members of your workforce closest to your customer. This doesn’t allow leaders to develop true relationships with every team member, as appropriate.

It’s important to embrace the intelligence agents in your organization and actively cultivate input from them. They feel seen and heard, which often helps curb some negativity and difficult conversations.

Not all ideas and inputs will be useful. One idea on how to change a process may not work in the department where it’s suggested. But when top-level leaders are actively seeking out new approaches, they can experiment with them in other areas of the organization.

Of course, most input won’t be inherently positive. This is hard for leaders. We want to hear good news and how well things are going as much as the next person. Deliberate practice and self-awareness is necessary to both get quality feedback from others and to avoid taking it personally. Making open communication part of your organization’s culture is a good start to working well with both intelligence agents or any team member with something valuable to contribute.

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