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Leading Teams
Strengthening your weakest link
September 2003

MANAGING DIFFICULT EMPLOYEES ARTICLE: Strengthening your weakest link

"I don't have a good feeling about Janet," Tim told Mario, his colleague and leader of another team. "I think she's got what it takes to succeed in another setting, but she just isn't fitting in on my team." Mario nodded. "But you don't have the luxury of just cutting her loose right now. I've had some success with the weak links on my team. It's worth a try to help Janet succeed."

Most managers have found themselves in Tim's shoes—working with a team member who, for whatever reason, stands out as a weak link. Here's what Mario suggested.

Be patient. Virtually all teams go through tempestuous times, and it's easy to blame anyone whose views or work habits differ noticeably from the rest of the team. "What is it that makes Janet difficult?" Mario asked Tim. "Is it her ideas or her behavior?" Tim was tempted to say "Both," but realized he hadn't really thought about the distinction. "If the ideas are the sticking point, you may need to be more patient and give her more opportunities to express her point of view—and maybe take some chances on putting her ideas into practice," Mario continued. "Even if she's wrong a lot of the time, she'll get a chance to find out why and thus get in sync with the team. But if it's Janet's behavior that's a bigger problem, then you need to give her fewer chances to be a problem."

Be considerate.
No one likes to be told he's not fitting in. Never scold or embarrass a troublesome team member. It's okay to be direct. Just be tactful at the same time. Tim noted that Janet was often "a bit of a blowhard—even when she does have good ideas, you almost don't want to listen, because she doesn't listen to you." Mario suggested a straightforward approach. "Tell her 'Janet, you've contributed your views very thoroughly—I'd like to hear what some other people have to say on this issue.' And mean it. Then meet with her privately afterwards and ask her if she realizes that she gives the impression of not being interested in what others have to say. She may not get it. If she really isn't interested, then press her to tell you why. If you have to go into counseling mode, tell her—and everyone—that you take seriously your role as leader and want everyone to participate, to respect each other, and to cooperate. And if that means cutting Janet off or not calling on her, that's what it means."

Include the team.
"You don't have to do all of this yourself," Mario said. "You can ask some of your stronger, more experienced people to keep an eye on Janet and help her resolve some issues. Don't make it sound like she's in trouble; in the long run, you want your key people to play this role with any team member." Tim replied that he didn't know if any of his team members would be any more credible or effective than he could be. "But maybe the team as a whole can be," Mario said. "Do you ever have an open-ended discussion with your team about where you're doing well, where you need improvement, and what's holding you back? You can talk about issues without ever mentioning Janet directly, and you can build up her motivation to take her own share of responsibility for succeeding and helping the team."

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