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How do you deal with difficult team members?

yokim profile image Yokim Pillay Updated on ・3 min read

I'd really like to discuss how you guys deal with team members in your workplace who are extremely difficult to deal with and are very unpredictable in their ways.

Currently, I'm faced with the same issues on a daily basis with regards to team chemistry and individual attitudes, and it's wearing me down a fair amount.

While it may seem like I'm talking smack about my teammates, this is just an open discussion on how you can help you and your teammates build a better bond and work through the issues that you and your team face on a personal basis.

Right now, my main issue is that my team is working in a reactive manner as opposed to a proactive one.

I'll give you an example;

  • Person 1 is working on Project A and is the Lead Developer & Manager of 2, 3, and 4
  • Person 2 is working on Project B
  • Person 3 is working on Project C
  • Person 4 is working on Project D

Now, Person 1 is in charge of bringing in work and distributing it amongst Persons 2, 3, and 4.

Projects A to D are all due between 4-6 weeks from now.

Everyone is working on their projects really hard and are getting some good progress in, when 3 days into the new project workloads, a client comes in and makes a request to Person 1 to make a tweak to a website, we'll call this Project E.

Person 1 delegates this to Person 4, and needs to get this request done 3-5 hours from the brief, which in and of itself is vague and uninformative.

Person 4 is very new to the industry and this request made for Project E needs a little more time to be completed, so Person 4 works on the request made for Project E as hard as they can.

Another request comes in from another client to Person 1, they need some changes/fixes on their website, Project F. Person 1 then pushes this request to Person 2 with the same urgency and poor briefing as they provided to Person 4.

Now Person 2 is a bit more experienced, but the task required is a hefty one for them as well, and the brief wasn't any better than the brief that was handed to Person 4 for Project E.

The exact same happens to Person 3, they receive another task that needs to get bumped to the front of the workload queue.

This cycle repeats for each of the people on the team, and everyone is inundated with new requests from clients demanding tweaks and changes done to their websites/apps.

Everyone on the team is affected by the

4 working days later, the workload looks like this:

  • Person 1 is working on Project A, H
  • Person 2 is working on Project B, F, J, M, P
  • Person 3 is working on Project C, G, K, N, Q
  • Person 4 is working on Project D, E, I, L, O

When Persons 2, 3, and 4 are behind on their deadlines for their respective projects that were originally assigned to them, Person 1 becomes extremely hostile and harsh towards their team, trying to put pressure and be very negative in energy and demeanour to the team.

So this is just the tip of the iceberg that I'm dealing with at work right now, and people on my team are struggling to bring this up with the head of our team, as he is not very receptive to criticism outside of web development.

I'm at a loss for a solution here, as the moment of action arises, I'm paralyzed with fear of hurting my career or relationship with my team.

How do you guys deal with these kinds of obstacles in your team?

EDIT: Toxic was the wrong choice of wording to use, I've changed it to something a little more appropriate. (Thanks, edA-qa mort-ora-y & Chris!)

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craser profile image
Chris Raser

I'll second edA-qa mort-ora-y's thought that this sounds less like Person 1 is toxic, and more like they're an inexperienced manager, and under a lot of pressure. That's an important distinction, since it changes how best to address the problem.

I personally try to establish a mutual understanding of what's happening. When Person 1 delegates emergency work to you, mention what you're currently working on, and what effect the emergency work will have on that timeline. "I can make the color of the Frob configurable by the end of today, but that means I'll have to push back delivery of the Zim component from Thursday to Friday. Does that work for you?"

And keep Person 1 in the loop as you work on these emergency fixes. "Hi, just checking in to let you know I've clarified the requirements with the client, and I'm starting work." Then later, "Hi, the work is done, and I'm handing off to QA, and it should go into tomorrow's deployment. I should be back on my main project by 14:00." It establishes trust and avoids surprises for everyone.

Communicate proactively, establish common ground on the facts of the situation, and try to help the team move toward a solution.

If all that doesn't improve things, it may be time to look for a new job. Time spent in difficult work environments does make you stronger, but don't stay too long. If it becomes clear that the situation wont' change, don't beat your head against the wall. Far better to spend your time building skills and working with great people than learning how to "survive" difficult work environments.

Check out Extreme Ownership, a concise, practical guide to getting stuff done under pressure. (I'm thinking in particular of the chapter, "Prioritize and Execute.")

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Yokim Pillay Author

Hi, Chris!

Yeah, toxic was probably a bad word choice, apologies for that.

I think this is a good way to go about things in the future. At least then it will, in my mind, pave way for better communication in the long run.

I'll definitely check Extreme Ownership out, thanks for this, Chris! I appreciate your outlook. :)

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edA‑qa mort‑ora‑y

There's significant differences between incompetence, inexperience, and toxicity. It sounds mostly like Person 1 is in the inexperienced category. He's probably trying to do his best, and given that stuff is getting done I wouldn't call him incompetent (I reserve that for people that truly don't know what they're doing). He may be a litle, or a lot, of his depth here. He's likely stressed as well.

Toxicity is somebody who is actively creating a shitty work environment. They put people down, prop themselves up, talk poorly of people, complain, never have a kind word, and generally make the environment aweful. These people aren't that common, as they've been rightfully fired from many positions. If you do encounter such a horrible person, you make formal complaints, and if nothing comes of it, you quit. (Note, sometimes people are just this way temporarily due to a bad day or stress, that is something different, should it subside at least.)

But, alas, for Person 1. Have you really tried talking to the guy? Asking why he assigns things this way, asking how you might help with the problem. Attempt to understand why he's doing it, and see if you can help. He might just be getting this stuff from a higher up. Have you complained to him about his behaviour? Have you complained to HR, in case you have one. That is, try to understand the whole situation and him.

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Yokim Pillay Author

Thanks for your reply!

So Person 1 is actually the most experienced out of all of us, and they are aware of the issues at hand (Persons 2 & 3 have spoken to them a couple of times before).

Person 1 is definitely stressed out with the workload, which is understandable, it's just difficult to try and get a point across when they are not willing to listen to you and the points we try to make so that we can tackle the challenges and make the environment a happier and more positive one.

I personally haven't spoken to them as of yet, I'm very apprehensive as I'm the newest person in the team and don't feel that I have a 'foot to stand on', so to say.

We're an extremely small team, we only have the 4 of us, so, unfortunately, there are no external resources like HR.

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Chris Raser

Definitely tread lightly, and if you can, phrase any suggestions in a way that's aimed at reducing Person 1's stress level, rather than pushing back on what they're asking for.

BAD: "These emergency features are killing the project timeline. I can't get any work done when I'm constantly sidetracked!"

GOOD: "I'm currently working on feature X. I can switch to feature Z, but I'll need an extra day to get X finished. Or, if you're okay with delivering X without the configurable Frob, I can still get it done on time."

Do your best to offer options and solutions, and try to support the team's goals. This is often referred to as "managing up", or "managing your manager." It's a hugely important skill.

But as I mentioned in my other comment, sometimes the situation is intractable, and it's simply time to look for a new gig.

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yokim profile image
Yokim Pillay Author

Spot on. I still have a lot to learn about this world we work in, and how to see things from other standpoints, but this helps a lot, thanks!