The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist
NOV 2005, Sec. II
[In a modified form this article will be published by DAYSPA Magazine.]
When a New Employee Comes On (Too?) Strong and Team Members Complain and then
Exclude: What's a Manager to Do?
What happens when you add a new staff member who is highly competent, but
her colleagues find her arrogant, someone who talks down to them? This person
is more capable and knowledgeable than her peers. Is it just a matter of
jealousy and things will eventually settle down? However, what if the new
person complains that others are now excluding and ignoring her. And what if
other department managers have also remarked about her arrogant attitudes, but
when pressed for further information they claim they are only repeating
complaints of the staff. As a supervisor or manager, what would you do to
improve teamwork and the overall interpersonal climate?
Let me begin by posing a question: do we have a case of a knowledgeable,
confident and assertive woman setting off others' insecure "hot buttons" or do
you have a stress carrier on your hands? While I assume there's some truth on
both sides, let me begin this response as if there might be a prima donna in the
clubhouse? As the saga of football stars Randy Moss (last year) and Terrel
Owens (this year) -brilliant football receivers yet too often emotionally
immature and behaviorally dysfunctional individuals - illustrate, too many
exceptions or second chances for a shoot from the lips (or moon from the hips)
star takes a toll on most everyone in the system. And, alas, your shooting star
will likely seriously injure team morale before burning herself out.
So what to do? It's good that you want to take the lead in problem solving.
Consider these strategic steps:
1. Start Documenting. If you haven't already done so, informally document
any new specific behaviors of concern brought to your attention including, of
course, any disruptive behaviors you observe. Conversely, any clear patterns of
ostracism or isolation should also be noted. In my book, two incidents that are
relatively close in time mean that this person deserves closer scrutiny,
including having an informal discussion with this individual. You might ask how
things are going. To use a natural disaster metaphor, two problematic events
are equivalent to a tornado warning, that is, conditions are ripe for the
formation of a serious weather system (or for disruptive individual behavior or
interpersonal interaction). Three problematic behaviors and you have a serious
tornado watch, that is, there will be touch down. It's just a matter of the
precise location and how extensive the damage. But don't just take cover.
2. Have a One-On-One. Meet with the new employee. Share the feedback you
are hearing from both team members and how people in other departments are aware
of the tension. At this point, maintain confidentiality. Ask the employee for
her perception of the situation. She may well respond that others are jealous
of her skills and abilities. And certainly empathize with her feelings of
exclusion; ask for specific instances. While you might solicit suggestions on
improving the atmosphere, I wouldn't push hard for solutions at this point. Let
her know of your attention to start addressing these matters by speaking
individually with the other team members.
3. Have Individual Meetings. Meet with other team members. Give them a
chance to express their grievances. In addition, in these individual sessions
explore whether the person is aware of attempts to ignore and/or exclude the new
team member. Assessing the degree of denial and defensiveness or insight and
openness among group members is vital for subsequent intervention. The latter
individuals can become your overt or unspoken allies in trying to change the
antagonistic culture. Gathering this collective information will give you both
a forest and trees perspective and enhance your ability to intervene.
4. Selective Recruiting. After your individual meetings, try to enlist two
or three team members who will agree to a problem solving meeting with you and
the new team member. These people become the group representatives. Try to
select colleagues who can be somewhat objective and emotionally balanced, i.e.,
can these individuals acknowledge that at this point both team members and the
new employee have reason to be frustrated? Can your task group recognize that
almost any significant social-operational change can prove upsetting to
individuals and teams as a whole?
One caveat: if you discover that a team member truly has entrenched hostility
toward the new member you will likely need to speak with this disgruntled
individual and perhaps even mediate a joint meeting between these antagonists.
Clearly, this angry individual should not be one of the group representatives
5. Mediation Meeting. The purpose of this meeting is to air issues and,
hopefully, get your recruited group proposing action steps that will help the
new person better fit into the social climate and working atmosphere of the
office. The goal is to reduce any provocative actions of the new employee while
validating her strengths. At the same time, explore whether any team members
are uncomfortable with her strengths or are feeling pressured to improve their
performance, etc. Some team members may need help in adjusting to the loss of
old intimacy and to the new group dynamics.
Remind the new person that you are not looking to shut down her individuality;
designing a better working fit is your goal. Finally, help these folks identify
the key points for improving communication and cooperation that will be shared
with the entire team.
6. Hold a Team Meeting. The team as a whole now has a chance to respond
briefly to the initial concerns; this should not become a bash session. The
problem-solving steps proposed should be the primary focus. The goal is some
ventilation around both issues of condescension and exclusion, acknowledgement
of change stress, further refinement of conflict problem-solving and team
building plans and, finally, group buy-in to action steps. When people see that
anger can be expressed appropriately and safely, that is, when no one feels
emotionally attacked or belittled or no one experiences retaliation then a
greater sense of relationship or group trust may well emerge.
7. Follow-up Meetings and Training. I would follow-up with the new
employee within a couple of days to see how she weathered the team meeting. And
plan to meet with the team weekly for the next month to monitor the social
atmosphere and progress toward the goals of improved communication and
cooperation along with effective integration. Also, you might want to consider
having some communication and conflict resolution skills training as part of
ongoing team building.
8. Fail Safe. If any of this sounds daunting or if the process breaks
down, for example, the new employee (or any employee, for that matter) refuses
to participate in this intervention, then meet again with the recalcitrant
individual. Firmly state your intention to document formally unprofessional
behavior that negatively impacts either work productivity or productive team
relationships. Of course, this supervisory step also applies to any team member
engaging in exclusionary behavior.
If your organization has the resources, call in an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
counselor to help guide the process. (You might want to avail yourself of a
coach from the get go.) Or if needed, hire an outside conflict mediator. If
your goal is to: a) help this employee be productive in her work and working
relations and b) have an effective -- task-focused, inclusive and cooperative --
working team then these steps become an investment by management in group morale
and cohesiveness, as well as retaining a potentially valuable employee. And in
today's litigious society, such an intervention may preempt possible grievance
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(c) Mark Gorkin 2005
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