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Borrowing from my past clinical days, the “identified patient” or IP is the person in the system (family, team, group) who is disruptive, contrarian, a lightening rod, a flame thrower…generally an outlier. I know you can all name that person on your team right now. S/he is the pain in everyone’s side and the expressed fantasy is, “If only Taylor was removed from this team then everything would be smooth sailing.”

I can’t remember a time when I’ve worked with a team (and I’ve worked with hundreds of them) where there was not an IP. In fact that is often the reason why I get the phone call. “Our team is stuck in some bad habits and I can’t seem to get us to the next level of performance. I’m pretty sure it is because this one person is so counter productive. I’ve had scores of one-on-one discussions with him but he is unwilling to change his behavior. He is smart and gets a lot done but the team (and his team) just can’t work with him.” What the leader is asking me to do is assess this person to see if there is any hope for change and to work with the team to improve the dynamics.

The first words out of my mouth are always, “If this person left or became perfect do you imagine that other dysfunctional team patterns will be more evident?” The long pause that follows is understandable. The noise this one person has been making is so loud and distracting that it is hard to know what else is happening.

So let me translate some of the more psychological underpinnings of this phenomenon. This dynamic can be inevitable when the leader is not consciously guiding the team to engage in healthy, productive and respectful ways.

  • When humans gather in groups very natural divisions of labor and hierarchies emerge. (We are not far from our animal ancestors.) Someone will fill the leadership vacuum, another will be the calming and stabilizing force, others will band together into a smaller clique and someone will inevitably surface as a more negative and disruptive force. Again, think about your own team. You can recognize this cast of characters.
  • Over time all of these chosen roles (which align with someone’s nature) become caricatures; extreme versions of points of view that are actually vital to productive team functioning. Teams need these differences to make good decisions and have healthy debates.
  • Ultimately the most negative member paints himself into a corner. He has only one note to sing and it becomes the loudest and most unpleasant in the group.
  • But if you pay closer attention you will notice that the other characters have done the same. They reflexively chime in with predictable points of view. “Let’s not get too excited here. Let’s focus on the issues not the person. We can’t leave the room until we are all committed to the same plan.” And that little clique in the corner now has its own separate meeting at one end of the table.
  • The reason why the IP takes on the role and then seems to relish it varies from person to person so I don’t want to generalize here. The range of motives can be: even negative attention is better than no attention, oversized competitiveness, an inability to create and sustain positive relationships, fear/anxiety, having a self image as an independent rather than a joiner.
  • At the more complex group dynamic level, put more than two people in a room together and things will get nutty. Again, it’s just human nature….no evil intentions here. But with more people there will be more separate agendas, needs and egos. The subtext is filled with multiple alliances that may be known to all but operate in the shadows. This dyad is making a side agreement before walking into the room, that trio is making a pact of “hell no we won’t go”, those two people have a long and positive connection while those two over there can’t stand each other.

Bottom line: it is never as simple as “that person is the problem”. Teams are complex and layered environments with loads of (mostly) well meaning characters playing their parts. I’d say this is one area of business functioning where it really does help to have some advanced degree in human behavior. This stuff is very difficult to unravel, understand and navigate.

If this sounds like what is happening on your team, what can you do? I offer the following more as one possible script rather than something that is a sure thing. You’re dealing with people and nothing goes quite as planned and there is nuance and skill needed to intervene successfully.

  • When you speak one-on-one with your IP don’t get tangled in debating the issues. As you already know, no matter what the specific issue is the conversation always leads to the same place…separate corners. Don’t get sucked into this because you are both trying to be the winner to the other’s loser status. Because the negative behavior is so extreme it does create a power struggle. Rise above that.
  • Change the dance. Rather than debating an issue cut through it all. “This pattern simply doesn’t work. We’ve talked many times and nothing changes. You know that you are an outlier on the team. You know that this is unacceptable and effects our productivity. You need to tell me why you persist in this behavior.” You will then hear about how this person is smarter than everyone else and how you selected idiots for the team and how if the team doesn’t do what he recommends then the business is going under. Your response: “If that is what you truly believe then why do you stick around? Why wouldn’t you prefer to be someplace that can anoint you so you can stop fighting so hard with all of us?” You might get a little bluster about headhunters calling every day but mostly this will have changed the dance and leave the person off balance for the moment.
  • After this pause you can address things at a more personal and realistic level. Offer compassion (again, unexpected). “I try to imagine being in your shoes and honestly I get tired just thinking about it. If I believed that everyone around me was so off course then I would spend all my time being anxious and agitated…needing to scream fire all the time. Is this what is going on for you?” This is probably not at all what the person is experiencing but you have shifted the conversation and it will be disruptive. He might talk about his deep concerns for the business and that his heart is in the right place. Time for you to mention reality. “It must be tough feeling like you have the weight of the whole enterprise on your shoulders. Fortunately, that is actually not the case. As you can see we have loads of smart, talented people around here who are contributing great stuff to make us rather successful. Just look at our stock price. So in spite of how responsible you say you feel, the rest of us are doing quite well following the majority path.”
  • Finally, offer options. Clearly, this negative behavior must end and you’ve banged your head against this wall enough already. For however deluded this person may be things cannot go on like this. It’s time to put the responsibility squarely on his shoulders. “Look, I have a better understanding of where you are coming from but honestly I don’t hear anything that indicates that you can or want to change your ways. And that is simply unacceptable. This has gone on for a very long time and it doesn’t seem to be useful for anyone…including you. There are only two choices at this point. If you have any desire to let go of your burden and make some significant changes I will provide all the resources you need to make that happen. But if you are who you are and you are content with that then we need to discuss an exit strategy.”

These are tough situations to confront. Most leaders feel cautious and ambivalent about making a move. They try to play pseudo-shrink second guessing what is in this person’s mind, they worry about business discontinuity if this person leaves, they wonder if this person will do harm. Make sure HR is involved and providing guidance and support.

On the other side of this you and the rest of the team think that life will now be perfect. The identified patient is gone and now everyone can play well together. Ah, not so fast grasshopper. You’ve picked off the most negative force but you still have a room full of extreme and predictable players. Yes, there will be some shifting dynamics without the thorn-in-the-side and some of it will be good stuff. But most of the dynamics that were in motion will remain. Creatures of habit. Comfort zones.

Just don’t be lulled into a false sense of serenity if you believe that removing the IP will be a panacea. After all, we humans are brilliant at filling group voids. Keep you eyes open to spot the emerging new IP.

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