Disruptive coworker not wanted on team

Dear Joan:
I was recently given the task of implementing Lean Manufacturing at my place of employment.   I have been training (and doing lean projects) for the past five months. 

Approximately 30 percent of our 60-person workforce is currently engaged in improvement projects. Unfortunately, we have one or two disruptive co-workers (as do most places). 

One person in particular has been a "sore spot" in the company for years and has been both rude and threatening to coworkers and even supervisors. There never seems to be any discipline of such behavior and no accountability.   

Now, I am being asked to include this person on one of the teams. I do not feel as though I am capable of handling this type of behavior and feel threatened because these issues have not been handled well in the past.   My two big concerns are for the stability of the team that may become victimized by this disruptive behavior, and my own well being.   

I have suggested counseling or training for the disruptive person, prior to being included on a team, and will ask for further training myself so that I may know how to handle such a person. Even then I fear that may not solve the problem.  

I do not know yet, but I am concerned that neither of my requests will be granted or implemented, prior to putting that person on one of the established teams.   All employees need to participate, but "Lean" does not take the place of sound HR practices.  

Beyond that, what can I do?    Am I being unreasonable? 

 
Answer:

Your letter is another example of the ripple affect caused by leaders who are unwilling to deal with a disruptive employee. If he has been rude and even threatening to supervisors with no consequences, how can leaders expect a peer to manage his behavior?  

Weak or ineffective leaders sometimes think that if they look the other way, the problem will go away. Your dilemma illustrates the opposite result. In addition, leaders will sometimes rationalize, “Oh, he is difficult but his work is good (or he has a special technical skill we need).” The damage a difficult employee wreaks on an organization outweighs their technical contribution. No one is that indispensable.  

Since all employees are expected to participate in the Lean initiatives, you will likely be pressured to put him on the team. This could work to your own career advantage if you handle this situation well. If you demonstrate strong, decisive leadership, it will make you highly promotable.  

I doubt any amount of training is going to prepare you for the antics he could pull. So, I suggest a few preemptive strikes to mitigate the damage he could do, as well as to set the stage to remove him, if necessary.  

Tell your manager about your reservations and give examples that illustrate the problems you anticipate. Rather than just complain about these possibilities, tell your manager what you are going to do to avert these issues.   

In addition, ask him or her to support you if you can’t get compliance from this individual. Specifically, say, “I will take all these steps to avoid problems, but if he jeopardizes the results of the team, I’d like you to back me if I have to remove him.” Once you have agreement, summarize your plan in writing, send it to your manager, and save a copy for future reference. 

Here are some of the steps you can outline in your plan: 

 
  1. Create ground rules with the team that are agreed to by members. For instance: Treat all members with respect and dignity; Value the contributions of all members; Talk to people in the room-- not about people outside of the room; Stand united behind group decisions, Be accountable for completing action items, Be on time and  “present” in meetings, etc. The ground rules should be a code of behavior that will create boundaries and expectations. If he (or others) steps outside of those ground rules, you will have something concrete to refer back to if you need to talk with him or others about any inappropriate behavior. It will be difficult for him to argue with you if he has been a participant who agreed to the ground rules.  
  2. Get agreement from his manager about his role, expected contribution and team behavior.  Ask his manager to meet with him prior to joining the team to outline what is expected. Ideally, the three of you could meet to discuss it. Privately, explain your concerns with his manager (if he or she is different from your boss) and ask for his or her commitment to support your actions (if any are necessary) with this employee.  If you don’t have the opportunity to have a three-way meeting with him and his manager, meet with him yourself prior to him joining the group. Clarify the goals of the team and his role and expected contribution. Share the ground rules with him, if they have already been developed, and get his buy in and agreement. 
  3. Once he is an active member of the group, facilitate the group firmly and don’t tolerate any violation of the ground rules. If he or others step over the line to a mild degree, remind them of the ground rules in a neutral way. Usually, teams self-correct and you don’t even need to refer to the ground rules—they will. If the infraction is more severe, call a stop to it, but don’t reprimand in front of others. Confront the behavior privately and immediately after the meeting. Point out how it violates the ground rules and get his agreement that it won’t happen again. If it does, speak to your manager and his manager and ask that he be removed. 
  4. Ask your manager or other senior person to be the “executive sponsor” of the team. Many organizations use a sponsor to keep the group linked to the direction the senior management team has charted. Sponsors provide guidance and counsel to the leader of the team and help with any political issues such as this.  

If you think the facilitation role is beyond your skill set, ask for an outside company facilitator from the Quality Improvement area or HR. There may also be an outside consultant who would be able to fill his role. You would lead the content portion of the project, while the outside facilitator would keep the process and group dynamics on track. 


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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