First-class coach

Your awkward team member deserves development support as much as the others.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I've got someone on my team who seems to resent my authority and tends to act up in a very childish way every time I ask him to do something. He's pretty competent, so I don't want to lose him. How can I manage him out of this behaviour?

A: It comes as a surprise to managers who do not see themselves as authoritarian to discover that some of the people they manage nevertheless perceive them as authority figures. They react to them as such rather than as individuals. They will behave in the way they habitually do towards those in authority, a pattern often developed in childhood. Depending on their personality, their reaction might be hostile and competitive or submissive and compliant.

In some ways, then, the problem lies with your team member, not you; but you still have to deal with the impact of his behaviour on your team. He may be disrespectful, disruptive and constantly challenging, and this may undermine your leadership role, as well as your confidence.

You also contribute to this situation, albeit unconsciously. Your actions, tone of voice and body language may all act as triggers for his unhelpful response, bringing up painful memories of a parent, teacher or another adult with whom he interacted as a child.

The good news is that it should be possible to change his typical behaviour by modifying your own. It may be helpful to take a step back and visit the theories of Transactional Analysis (TA) to find a path through this difficult situation.

TA, first described by Eric Berne in his book Games People Play in 1964, looks at interactions between people ('transactions') and explains that for each transaction the participants may be in one of three states: Parent, Adult or Child. The two variants of Parent are Critical and Caring. In management terms, a Critical Parent would be judgmental and directive ('Do it this way, not like that'), while a manager playing Caring Parent might say: 'Let me do that for you - you've got too much else to do.'

Although occasionally either role could be appropriate, both risk being ineffective because they can push the other person into Child state, the realm of emotions; these might be Rebellious Child (like your team member), Adaptive Child (eager to please but lacking in confidence), or Free Child, who goes off and does their own thing, becoming disengaged from the group.

Much more effective would be a transaction from Adult to Adult, based on an objective appraisal of reality and communication between equals. This requires facts rather than feelings. You will need to do three things: first, have some facts to back up your assertions; second, deliver them in an open manner, with a positive tone of voice; and third, if you get back the usual childish response, don't get drawn into Critical Parent mode with criticism, orders and threats. Stay logical and in the here-and-now. You'll thus be denying your troublesome team member the payoff of you playing the role of evil, controlling boss. You'll also be making it clear to the rest of the team that his behaviour is unjustified.

Negative aspects of Child state are the uncontrolled emotions: anger, unreasonableness and sorrow. But, of course, there are also positive aspects to being in the Child state: typically, the Child exhibits playfulness, creativity and imagination - which can be great assets to a team. It is important to allow your team time to express these elements of their psychological make-up.

If you can find an occasion where you're able to let go of the reins - say, at some social event where you have no need to be in control - you may be able to engage with your team member in the playful Child state yourself and allow him to see the human being inside the role.

One of your roles as a manager is to develop the people who report to you, and your awkward team member deserves development support as much as the rest of the team. His attitude and behaviour are the key areas of focus for him. An inability to manage upwards, or even to establish an effective relationship with his manager, will blight his chances of progression.

Try giving him feedback in the open and non-judgmental manner described, having first found aspects of his work to praise. Ask him about his ambitions and assure him you'd like to help him succeed. If he says he'd like to become a manager, try asking him what he'd do if he had a team member who reacted negatively to him. His answer could be revealing - to him as well as you.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail:

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