Strategy & Leadership

The Art of Managing a Dysfunctional Team

Editor’s note: Donald B. Stephens is a 30-year senior customer service engineer with the Xerox Corporation. Here, he explains the good and bad sides of field service management styles. 

Your manager calls you into his office and spends the last ten minutes praising the job you’ve done with your team. You know he wants something, but what he asks feels like punishment for all the hard work you’ve done. The job? Take over team 13 — the malcontents of the company.

“Since you’ve done such an incredible job with your guys,” he says with a smirk, “I know you’ll have no problem whipping them into shape.”

Or perhaps you accepted a transfer to Florida to escape the cold, only to be given the team nobody else wants. Or maybe a company restructure has found you in the same dreaded position. If none of these scenarios has happened to you, then you haven’t been a field service manager for very long. But it could happen someday, and how you handle the band of misfits you’ve been asked to manage will make all the difference in the world.

In my 30 years in field service, I’ve been on many dysfunctional teams. I’ve witnessed managers who have worked miracles, and those who have crashed and burned. I can boil it down to three management approaches, and the pros and cons of each.

The Machiavellian Style: Use a Hammer

Pro:

A quick way to beat a team into submission is to rule with
an iron fist. If you see your job as a field service manager as just a brief
stop on your way up the corporate ladder, this could be for you. Make an
example of the slightest policy or process infraction because this will put
fear into the hearts of your team. Hey, even the most rebellious employee will fall in
line if they see it could mean losing their job.

Con:

Morale is sure to suffer, which can cause a dip in productivity. Even worse is the apathy and mediocrity the hammer approach breeds. Don’t expect your troops to go the extra mile for you or to jump when you ask them to handle a late-night emergency. Fear does not earn you respect. Plus, the brute-force hammer style doesn’t address the underlying personality problems that got the team to a dysfunctional state in the first place. These will fester under the surface and blow up at the worst possible time. You will also leave quite a mess for your successor.

The Stalinist Style: Develop a Network of Spies

Pro:

There are always one or two techs more than willing to give you the scoop on the team’s troublemakers and dead weight. They usually have a handle on the majority of the team’s problems and are full of ideas about what you should do.

Con:

Spies are always self-serving. They will give you plenty of damning information on others in the hopes that they will shine. Chances are, their big mouths have already alienated many of the quieter techs on the team. On one of the teams I worked on, our spy caused much of strife that had infected our team.

The Effective Style: Roll-up Your Sleeves and Dig in

I’ll ditch the pro/con format here because the previous two approaches are for those who want a quick fix and aren’t willing to do the serious work of managing. I’ve seen the results of the hammer and the spy network and they aren’t pretty. Here are five tips I’ve gleaned from managers who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

  1. Earn respect – don’t demand it. If many of the techs seem distant and unenthused, then they have probably been subject to one or both of the previous managing styles. They need to feel valued more than they need discipline. Find what they do right and tell them and then tell them again.
  2. Don’t rock the boat until you have earned the entire team’s respect. Broken processes will need to be redefined or eliminated, but leave them alone in the beginning. Once everyone trusts you, you’ll be surprised how few processes are actually broken.
  3. Keep your distance from the spies. When they start to dish the dirt, ask them about the positive things that the offending tech does and tell them to focus on that.
  4. Uniformity is not always best. Some managers get hung-up on making every tech do the exact same thing on every service call. Technicians are by nature independent workers and will find the best way to do something to suit their individual style. If the results are the same, why fight that battle? You can earn respect points by acknowledging individuality.
  5. “Filter” corporate demands. Sometimes you’re going to need to go back to your boss and say, “My team isn’t ready for that.” He or she will either give you some time to prepare the team or tell you to get them ready – now. Either way, at the meeting where you introduce it, you can honestly tell the team that you went to bat for them and struck out. But don’t tell them you did it when you didn’t. They’ll see right through you and you will have lost any respect you might have gained.

Taking over a dysfunctional team is a daunting task. The temptation to use a quick fix to hammer them into shape is immense, but the satisfaction you get from healing the team will be a reward that will last a lifetime.

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