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Six ways to handle a dysfunctional team

Personality clashes can drive a team into the ground. To stop your team from heading in that direction, try following these six steps.

Slackers...know-it-alls...backstabbers... We've all had coworkers like this, and we all know how much damage they can cause to a team's (and its manager's) morale and reputation. Network and systems managers don't always have the authority to extract every cancer in the clubhouse, but there are ways to neutralize team acrimony. Here are six strategies for helping dysfunctional team members work together:

  1. Understand team members' motives and motivations

    This may be the simplest and most important strategy. We frequently write off troublesome employees as "difficult people" when in reality there's no such thing, says Wayne Strider, vice-president of Strider & Cline Inc., a Kansas City IT-management firm. "What we really have are 'people I have difficulty with,'" Strider explains. A person who seems problematic may just be someone you haven't taken the time and effort to understand.

    Every manager needs to make the effort to get the real story, says Josh Abrams, who manages the network and systems at AMD Telemedicine Inc. in Lowell, Mass. Abrams suggests having one-on-one meetings to get a better feel for the employee's motivations. "What's going on in their head that's causing this? Maybe there's a family issue carrying over to work. Then -- instead of blaming them -- we may be heading down the road of locating counseling and getting them help."

    Other times, an employee may simply feel under-appreciated or stagnant, says Jon Reed, managing editor of and a frequent commentator on project management issues. Try setting individualized performance objectives and offering training opportunities as incentives. "Network and systems administrators all understand that they're only as marketable as their current skills," he says. "Investment in an employee's skills can turn around a bad attitude quickly."

  2. Define roles and responsibilities

    A manager must make sure everyone knows her role. Confusion over responsibilities can lead to ugly turf wars. Or it can leave critical tasks unfinished, with everyone pointing the finger at one another. Define each team member's role clearly, in terms of actual deliverables, says Strider. "Each person needs to know what he or she is responsible for producing at the end of the day," he says. "That's quite a bit different from just saying, 'OK, what's my job here?'" Deliverables can be crafted strategically for troublesome employees like, say, a senior engineer who tries to hide his outdated skill set by acting arrogantly toward his co-workers. "Instead of accusing a person like this of having a condescending attitude, set a benchmark," Reed suggests. "Say, 'By the end of the year, I want you to have learned a new task, and I want this junior member to be doing what you're doing now.'" This puts the senior person in a valuable mentor role while making him accountable for his cooperation.

  3. Set measurable team objectives

    Create quantifiable objectives and milestones that everyone understands. If your team is working toward a well-defined communal goal, individuals are less likely to sink into backbiting. Unfortunately, says Reed, this is challenging for network and systems managers, because things like network, systems and security fall into the category of ongoing maintenance. "There's just not the same surge of excitement you'd get when, say, a new development project goes live," he says. "It's a real challenge to create objectives people can feel good about instead of just relying on an ongoing set of responsibilities that go on to eternity."

    Nonetheless, solutions are out there. For example, you can set a goal to reduce the number of helpdesk complaints 20% over the course of the year. Or you can set a target date for getting a new Oracle release live and available to users. "Figure out what your company is trying to do and how system admin work ties into corporate objectives," he says. "And go back to your team during the goal-setting process so they can help set the parameters."

  4. Provide a forum for regular feedback

    You cannot head off internal strife without detecting brewing conflicts. Arnie Walkin, former network manager at a large pharmaceutical company and now principal of the Boston-based New England Computer Consulting Group, suggests biweekly individual meetings with each team member. "It's a real morale booster because it helps [your employees] develop a level of trust," he says. "Plus, you can actually find out what might be troubling an individual and nip in the bud whatever might be bugging them."

    Abrams holds group rap sessions when things start to get tense. During these sessions, the staff steps back and air concerns, grievances and general observations. But Abrams warns that managers must structure these sessions carefully to avoid their turning negative. "I approach each member individually to establish the purpose of the session and set expectations accordingly," he says. "I do this at the outset to get them to the session and to know they understand the goals."

    Reed advocates a vehicle for anonymous feedback, followed up by meetings where you read and address it. "When people realize they can vent their frustration without catching heat, the corporate culture can change for the better," he says. "And difficulties with so-called 'problem team members' can go away. Many companies get their best suggestions from these people."

  5. Set and enforce consequences

    Imagine this scenario: You're saddled with a higher-up's spoiled nephew who spends his days in chat rooms instead of on projects. On one hand, your team is bubbling over with resentment. On the other hand, he's the boss's nephew. This is where a strong manager can send a message to the team that nobody's above the law. Moreover, this is where it's particularly critical to follow through on the individual benchmarks you should have set at the outset.

    You might try this by announcing that a senior position will be opening in a couple of months and that whoever performs best according to established objective guidelines will get the promotion. "At the end, people will have a good understanding who performed -- and why the boss's nephew didn't get the promotion," says Reed. "People will see that he got no added benefit and team resentment will go way down."

    On the flip side, Reed concedes, "If you don't have upper-level backup, everyone will know, and you'll lose their respect."

  6. Practice random acts of kindness

    Token gestures can go a long way toward preventing the worst kind of dysfunction: group animosity toward the manager. This could mean coming in on Friday with a bag of bagels -- and knowing what kind each team member likes, or randomly taking the team out to lunch. "A lot of times I'll come back to the office after lunch with a couple gallons of ice cream and toppings to make sundaes," Walkin adds. "I don't request a refund or go into the petty cash account. It's a morale booster. They think, 'it's great that my manager did this -- he must really care."

    Nonetheless, warns Walkin, this is no substitute for honest management, fair evaluation and open communication. "When someone works on my team, my goal is for them always to know how they're doing."

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