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Ph.D., CSP, CDR, US Navy Ret.,
CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame

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Managing a Team of Quarterbacks

Most people consider themselves above average drivers, but statistically, that just isn’t possible. Many people pride themselves on working harder than the average worker. Many people think they are smarter than they really are.

Many people also have blinders on when it comes to their own work performance. It is challenging, therefore, for a manager to harness multiple, and sometimes (very) strong personalities into a cohesive team, when there are people who clearly don’t want to adhere to the same standards of behavior that they expect of others. You have probably heard someone disdain, “Rules are for other people!” These people expect the rules to apply to everyone else but them, and are frequently the most difficult to manage.

Oftentimes, these “quarterbacks” are your most valuable talent. They are usually your “out of the box” thinkers, and they excel when they are the star of the team or when they operate alone. But when they refuse to lend themselves to the overall well-being of the team, their actions are distracting and counterproductive.

How do you fix it?

Address problems right away. As a manager, as soon as you discover that someone is violating his boundaries, not contributing, or working contrary to team goals, pull him in for a meeting. Explain that his motivation for the action may be right, but working outside the legal or safety parameters or not helping the team is detrimental.

Frequently these employees don’t understand the strategic picture. They don’t have all of the facts, and they don’t understand the consequences of their bad decisions.

When providing feedback, or “feed forward” (it sounds more positive and proactive) reactions will differ, but many may fall into one of these common response scenarios:

1) Denial – “I didn’t mean to.” The action may stem from pure carelessness, neglect, laziness, or sheer lack of knowledge, which indicates a need for more training.

Your solution: Ask the person to discuss it right away. Call him on what happened and make sure he realizes the effect that his behavior has on others. “That may not have been your intent, but it happened and now we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again. How can we prevent this from happening in the future?” Put the burden of thinking about a solution on him. Help him see the consequences. Make it a training opportunity.

2) Defensive – “I don’t see why it is a problem.” The team member doesn’t see why he created a problem because he doesn’t have the maturity, the wisdom, the facts, the experience, or the reasoning ability to discern the real issue. Sometimes he just doesn’t want to see that he is at fault. (See Denial, above) These people try to argue their way out of trouble. These people think that they are above average drivers, too.

Your solution: “This action (be specific) wound up costing $___ and __ of time because you did this ___ (again, be specific.) This is where it went wrong. Now, how are you going to fix it?” The defensive responders tend to be experts at deflecting the issue. Managers may hear, “But Charlie does it all the time!,” or some other excuse that has little to do with the current problem. Don’t let your Defensives lead you off topic. Stay focused on the current problem, “We aren’t talking about Charlie, we are talking about you.” Or “That is not your issue. Your issue is ___(restate the problematic action).”

Put the responsibility of fixing the problem back on them. Help them find the right solution that both corrects the mistake and provides a real learning experience. If they don’t have to work to fix the negative consequences, the behavior or problem will likely be repeated. These people need more attention, follow-up, and supervision.

3) Apologetic – “I am sorry. This is my fault.” This is the easiest response to deal with, if it is sincere. (When I make a mistake, I am harder on myself than anyone else ever could be. No boss has ever made me feel as bad as I can.) If this attitude is genuine, you can move forward quickly.

Your solution: “Thanks for taking responsibility. How are you going to take care of it?” Chances are, they already have a solution in mind as soon as they realize the problem. Assure them that you consider the matter resolved and that you intend to move forward.

4) Personalization – “This is because you don’t like me.” The response is much like the defensive response. The other person may try to use something personal as an excuse to not see the behavior. Stay focused!

Your solution: Phrase the problem using a third-party. “If Frank needed some help on this project, how should he best approach you?” Have them explain and then delve into the problem. “Well, Frank asked you on Tuesday and you promised help by Wednesday, but it didn’t happen, so now we are all behind. What do you think Frank should do?” Ask plenty of open-ended questions that focus on the issue in a non-blaming manner, and then close it with consensual agreement. “So you are willing to help Frank and you can get this finished by Friday? Let’s go talk with him together and schedule the rest of the project.”

Sometimes, however, you do everything right, and the bad attitude and poor performance continues. You may have to consider whether that person, however gifted, is the wrong fit for the team. If you have done everything possible to elicit his talents and adequately trained him to work with others, then you should not feel as though you have failed if is time to help them find another job. Some people need to get off the bus so the bus can get to where it needs to go. Any coach will attest that great players are valuable only when they contribute to the betterment of the team.

Story: I had a boss who was easily angered and when he got mad, he erupted (Volcano-Man). But once the offending person was duly held accountable, the matter was instantly forgotten. I much preferred his method to the boss who never communicated and slowly-simmered (Crockpot-Man) under the surface, only to explode over trivial issues. Crockpot-Man made people feel as though they were walking on eggshells. Given a choice, I prefer clear communication every time. Managers need to realize that people prefer more information, not less.

1 Comment

  1. Steve Kelly

    Saw a snippet from Star Wars in a store today and have been in a bit of a Jedi mode since. Perhaps to apply here….
    When Jedi Knights stray….
    – Most work best in teams, the few rogues that go it alone – even with a partner – need extra leadership.
    – Denial (or “Oops”): Jedis ALWAYS know WHAT they are doing, the fact that it is wrong means they didn’t fully comprehend the rule book or were poorly mentored.
    – Defensive: Jedis get very defensive when their moral fiber is challenged. Anti-dote: re-program the moral fiber. More physical & mental training is effective.
    Bigger picture: The “I don’t see why it is a problem” is just one form of defensiveness…defensiveness can dovetail in to the “Personal Attack” scenario too. The “folded arms & silent treatment” is the worst defensive posture with which to deal effectively – the good news is that it is fairly obvious to detect. They are pleading the 5th for a reason. Ask them if they want their one phone call to their lawyer now or after you call corporate counsel. Generally shakes the leaves loose. If their eyes get real big, you may have gotten into something you weren’t ready to address…so be prepared for other issues.
    – Apologetic: Jedis are sorry when they know they messed up and they are eager to fix, although since their mistake got them down this path, sometimes they require/need a bit of guidance/steerage to get out of that particular cave.
    – Personalization: Jedis are always focused on the problem. When superstars start taking things personally, you can bet you hit a nerve, either with a another personal issue, a traumatic historical event or an age related medical scenario. Crank up the A/C.
    – Finding another team/job/universe: sometimes Jedis need to get to another galaxy to be effective. Usually the sooner the better and if you help them make the transition, they might even be appreciative.

    My $0.02.


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