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No More Drama

Are the interpersonal or political dynamics in your organization making you nuts? Is everyone jockeying to be seen as top dog? Is too much of your management time being spent as a referee? Are you sick and tired of all the disruptive craziness around you? Take a bit of advice from Mary J Blige: No more drama!

I’ve said it here many times and I’ll say it again: when you put smart, ambitious and well intentioned people altogether in a company you will inevitably see very wild and crazy human behaviors. It’s just a fact. But as a leader your job is to minimize the dysfunction and create a sane and productive work environment. Most leaders I work with run the gamut of being completely intolerant of stupid human tricks to being overly sympathetic. To provide some insight into this normal phenomenon let me use a (disguised) true story.

Lena was hired as the new CFO of a mid-sized public company. She was the most attractive candidate because, along with her financial expertise, she had transformed several finance functions in other companies. In her new role she inherited an antiquated, underperforming and bloated department that the CEO expected her to shape up. After two months Lena concluded that these were the critical issues: the team was not acting in service of the business, the processes and systems were idiosyncratic and not customer friendly, the talent on the team was C+ at best, the average tenure on the staff was 15 years and performance expectations were abysmally low. She had successfully lead other turnarounds so she felt ready to take on the challenge.

What she had not experienced before or anticipated was the destructive behavior of 80% of her department. Sure, she was used to a small percentage of folks who resisted the changes but she was witnessing a real Lord of the Flies. Individuals made fast tracks to Lena’s office to get their licks in about their peers. “He is completely incompetent but the last CFO was his best friend.” “She calls in sick at least once a week. No one trusts that she will deliver.” “He’s having an affair with someone in marketing.” “Take my word for it, the first person you need to replace is George. No one likes him.” As the new person, initially Lena felt she just needed to listen. Then it filtered back to her that each person believed that she had affirmed their rants about others. She came to realize that there was a systemic problem of long term bad behavior that had gone unchecked. Nothing was going to get accomplished until she took the bull by the horns.

I wish I could tell you that this experienced person knew exactly what to do and everyone lived happily ever after. But leadership in the real world isn’t that simple–especially when dealing with such extreme misbehavior. If you find yourself in a similar situation try any or all of these things. Eventually the team will get the message that you will not stand for this.

  • Make it clear in individual and group settings that bad mouthing colleagues is unacceptable and not your style. Cut people off. Redirect the focus to the speaker. Make the norms explicit. Do this consistently. In time people will stop misbehaving in front of you. They will still do it amongst themselves but at least the publicly stated and observable expectations are “no dissing allowed.”
  • Find out who the ringleader is and spend time privately with him/her. Have all those great coaching and feedback conversations about the specific behaviors and the impact on the team and yadda yadda. There is a high probability that there will be no behavior change but letting the person know that you have his number shifts the dynamic. Keep giving feedback every time he messes up, put him on a performance plan, document the misdeeds, speak with HR. The team, especially the most destructive person, needs to see you systematically and legally take this person down. It puts everyone on notice.
  • Over a reasonable period of time fire all the bad apples. The knee jerk reaction of a leader coming into this situation is “off with their heads ASAP!” That is the proper action but the process has to be transparent, methodical and fair. Chances are that once you remove the few biggest offenders that their groupies will either voluntarily leave in a huff or settle down. There is a contagion effect where the more controlling and powerful players recruit underlings to form this informal power structure. Take out the big guns first and then see what happens but do it by the book.
  • Find those people who have been the good players all along but have retreated to the corners to stay out of the fray. They are the core of your new organization. Engage them, give them lead assignments, elevate their status. This really disrupts the status quo and freaks out the baddies. Be sure that you protect your inner circle. As the productive and positive people start getting the rewards the negative people will lose steam.
  • Bring in very different new people. Each new hire is a way for you to telegraph “this is what I want”. Make sure that you assess well beyond technical skills by getting a good read on positive disposition, collaboration, reasonable ego needs and good relationship skills. They will need additional support from you as they transition into this nutty team. They will be pulled at or targeted. Protect them.

A rational instinct and ordinary good practice is to stage some team retreats to jump start your transition as the new leader and to relaunch the team. I’m a big fan of leadership transition processes but I urge you to save your time, money and credibility by not doing the old team retreat thing. If you observe that this team is an utter mess there are no group tools that can fix that. This gets resolved through strong leadership, individual discussions, stated behavior expectations and multiple departures. The peer pressure in a group setting with the boss and a facilitator will yield polite lip service that ends up being complete bullshit. Avoid this at all cost.

It took Lena two and a half years to sort out her team. She brought in new people, took out the trouble makers, focused the department on customer service, engaged the team in the business and cleaned up the finance tools and processes. It took much longer than she had wanted and there were loads of missteps. Ultimately there was no more drama and everyone lived happily ever after…more or less.

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