When You Have To Lead People You Just Don’t Like

Remember that unhappy employee we talked about last week?  Well, what happens when the leader catches on first and realizes they have an employee who just isn’t engaged? On the one hand I would take you straight back to last week’s article and see what you might be able to do differently. Ask yourself, how am I causing this behavior? Are there different perspectives to consider? Where am I disengaged and thus setting an unconscious standard that he/she might be emulating?

On the other hand, they might just be a disengaged employee. And if they’re causing conflict among the team, and letting that employee go isn’t the prudent or best option, what do you do?

A client of mine is currently in just this position. He’s mentoring a person who’s on a development track to branch out in the company. There are about 3 months to go in the program, then this person will have the opportunity to test out and sell himself into the next stage. The problem is, this employee is disengaged and fails to play by the rules of his current team. Knowing his mentorship is nearing the end, he has a bit of that ‘senioritis’ attitude, and doesn’t quite live up to his mentor’s expectations. My client, the mentor, is understandably frustrated. Many of you are likely thinking, why put up with it? Just fire him!  Fair enough, but if my client can stick with the program, he is 3 months away from a mid-five figure bonus from the company for mentoring, a job which he has done remarkably well and in which he has invested more than 18 months of time and energy. In this case, at the very least, he has a light at the end of the tunnel, and a motivation to endure — but what does he do in the meantime?

Well, the answer has very little to do with the mentee; those stripes are set. Rather, the question is, ‘How can he use this relationship to become a better leader?’How can he use this time to improve himself and his leadership skill sets? He owes nothing to the mentee and has given him everything he has to offer, so instead of disengaging himself and biding his time to endure the next three months, why not flip the script and use the experience, instead of resisting it?  What buttons are being pushed by this employee, and can he learn to see it in advance? Test his theories, experiment, make notes on the outcomes of his attempts? When the mentor ceases to have an emotional connection, he can be more objective and clinical. Even though one might argue he should be doing these things anyway, it’s amazing how often we don’t. This is his chance to be conscious; to ask how one manages the remainder of the team behaving well, while one guy disrespects the rules. What about morale control? How can he practice different forms of communication or better questioning techniques to impact the dialogue with this employee?  Looking back over the 18 months, what could he have done differently that might have changed the course of this relationship?  Can he apply any of that in the remaining months to experiment with relationship building, leadership, language, tone, and the art of mentoring?  In what ways does this employee scratch or crack his armor, and what lingers with him when he goes home at night, unable to let go of the emotion? These are crucial insights that are often missed because it’s too easy to get caught up in trying to “fix” the other guy. When that’s no longer the goal, he is free to ask, “What can I learn?”

In this situation, my client knew his mentee could really push his buttons. “But,” he told me, “if I can turn those buttons off, I’ll be ten times the leader! I want to be 10x the leader!!”   And isn’t that true for all of us?

Iron, they say, sharpens iron, and instead of resisting these challenging relationships and taking the easy way out by simply removing the difficult person or ignoring them,step into the challenge to elevate the learning for you about you. Yes, in case you are wondering, I AM advocating “using” this employee for the leaders own good; after all, no harm comes to the employee, and in the end, they both benefit! And isn’t that whole point of the game?

Sounds like an incredibly productive and powerful three months to me.