Picture this. You joined a new company about three months ago. You love the new role, and you’ve had solid early traction on some of your initiatives. So far, so good.
Just recently, some cracks have begun to show with a member of your team. The volume and quality of his output are just not what you’d expect from someone at that level. And his communication style seems to be rubbing people the wrong way. You’ve seen it — and it turns out others have too. The Chief Operating Officer (COO) has raised concerns about the individual and strongly encouraged you to address her concerns swiftly.
You’re an experienced people leader, so, while concerning, it feels like a manageable situation. That is until you talk to your boss, the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), about it.
It turns out your boss hired the individual in question, having worked with him at a previous company. They have a long and loyal shared work history and a personal friendship. Your boss leaves you in no doubt about his strong, positive support for your team member — and his total disagreement with the feedback provided by the COO.
You also hear on the grapevine that there is no love lost between the COO and CFO — and that their polarised views on your team member have created some rather heated conversations at the Exec table.
Now, what do you do? You understand the politics but don’t want to get caught up in it. Even though it’s early days, you tend to agree with the COO — but going up against your boss under these conditions could have serious consequences. Likewise, if you ignore the COO, you could damage the positive track record you’ve begun to build. Doing nothing could be the riskiest option of all.
Here are my tips for navigating through a political minefield like this one:
1. Start with your leadership mindset. Focus on your team member, not on the politics at play. If, for example, you define your role as helping him to succeed, how might that guide your thinking and your actions? In other words, stay true to your values by doing what you think is right rather than what you think someone else wants you to do.
2. Calibrate and align your expectations with others. Ensure your definition of success for your team member aligns with the expectations of others — in this case, the COO and CFO. Gaining agreement on the elements and measures of success might be difficult. It won’t resolve the situation — but at the very least will help you name the points of difference and manage the problem with data rather than opinions.
3. Agree on a fair chance. There’s no point asking your team member to adapt if, in the background, they never really stood a fair chance of changing views. That’s just setting them (and you) up for failure. Wherever possible, I’d encourage you to try to assess whether the situation is salvageable before going to the effort of trying to turn it around.
4. Communicate the expectations. Once you have clearly defined the expectations, it’s essential to ensure that your team member understands them — particularly if you’ve made changes. If you’ve shifted the goalposts, it seems only fair to highlight where they’ve gone and to explain any new rules of the game.
5. Create the opportunity for success. You’ve explained the new expectations. Now it’s time to see how your team member responds. It’s also time to provide them with the support they need to succeed. That might be direct feedback from you or others. It might involve technical upskilling. Or perhaps even some mentoring from someone who has been through a similar development experience in the past.
Typically, situations like the one described above are challenging to navigate. There’s history that precedes you, politics outside your control and potentially, questionable motivation from your team member. All of which impact your likelihood of success and your reputation. Unfortunately, doing nothing is likely to have a more detrimental effect. Attempting to resolve the situation, at least, gives you a chance to demonstrate your leadership maturity and mindset. You never know; it might be a great turnaround story for everyone.