Questioning & Counseling Problematic Team Members

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

The use of interdisciplinary teams in business is a trend that is on the rise. This lesson explores ways to channel negative energy when conflicts exist in work teams.

Ingredients for a Successful Team

The difference between a successful team and one that dissolves without producing value is the presence or absence of soft skills possessed by each member of the team. Soft skills are the things you don't learn in college, or in your employer's training program. Instead, these skills are developed in a combination of genetics and real-world experience. Important soft skills include things like communication, empathy, and attitude. It's the soft skills, and not technical expertise, that make teams effective. Consequently, problematic team members are uniquely positioned to derail the entire team if their lack of soft skills creates chaos among the members.

Interpersonal dynamics are more influential on team success than technical expertise.

Problematic Team Members

There are a number of ways to redirect the negative energy or entropy that surrounds problematic members of a team. Almost all of those methods begin by making a clear distinction between a problematic process and a problematic person.

A problematic person is an individual who, by their very nature, introduces unnecessary chaos or drama to a working group or team. They are defined by the fact that they have no desire to contribute anything positive. Luckily, truly problematic people aren't as common in the workplace as you might think.

The reason problematic people are more scarce in a workplace than it may seem at first glance is because most individuals who earn this title do so because they are disruptors, not troublemakers. Make no mistake, disruptors can derail team dynamics. This is especially true if they lack adequate soft skills. However, individuals fitting this description should never be written off by a team leader.

Troublemakers can't be redirected, coached, or counseled effectively because they don't have a sense of shared mission or vision. In contrast, disruptors often share the same end goals but disagree with their teammates about the path that should be taken to achieve them. A disagreement about the way to achieve shared goals is better characterized as a problematic process.

Resist the urge to just expel a disruptive team member. Leverage them instead of letting them go because they are a very important piece in the team puzzle.

The Role of Active Inquiry in Redirection

One of the most annoying but powerful characteristics of many problematic team members (who are not simply troublemakers) is that they have no idea how to refrain from challenging, rebutting, or second-guessing the people who work alongside them in the team. They instantly play devil's advocate to almost any suggestion, are usually 110% sure they are right, and in actuality are probably wrong a whole lot more than they are right. Frustrating as it may be, this is all ok.

Managers should view these individuals as assets rather than liabilities. However, in order to actually make good use of the assets, leaders must master the art of active inquiry, which is involving professional and personal curiosity. By their very nature, disruptors want their voice to be heard. They often believe that they hold valuable information the rest of the team is overlooking or mishandling. When this dynamic is the source of conflict, giving voice to the disruptor by inquiring about their position is one of the first and most powerful steps to redirecting what other team members are viewing as negative energy.

Inquiry is a very effective way to redirect disruptors in a team.

When team leaders use the active inquiry technique with disruptors, they can use statements and questions like:

  • Can you explain a little bit more about where you think we are going wrong in this process?
  • Do you feel like there are specific pieces of factual information that we are not considering?
  • Can you articulate the specific roadblocks that are standing in the way of you believing this team is headed in the right direction?

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