Reality Check: The Reluctant Leader

In a workplace, folks sometimes find themselves “promoted” into a position they’d really rather not have, but perceive that they have no choice but to accept.

Shelly has been appointed the informal leader of her team. At the time, it didn’t seem to be a big deal—she’d keep an eye on the team; make sure things ran smoothly.

Not surprisingly, the reality of leadership is turning out to be a bigger deal than anticipated. The situations that arise are now Shelly’s responsibility to resolve.

One example is when Jeff—the most experienced member of the team—breaks out in a rant whenever there’s a problem. He usually directs his outburst toward teammate Jill with remarks like, “A monkey could do a better job than you!”

The interaction ends when Jill leaves in tears. Nothing is resolved, no one is held accountable; everyone walks on eggshells hoping it won’t happen again. But it does.

Jeff is an excellent worker, easily the most competent member of the team. However, no one benefits from his experience and knowledge because his “help” is so disrespectful.

Shelly just wants people to get along. Why can’t they be nice to each other? She hates confrontation; doesn’t know what to do, and she surely doesn’t feel like having Jeff turn his withering scorn toward her!

However, the team is suffering, productivity is down, and the future does not bode well. As leader, Shelly is now responsible for this crummy situation. How she’d like the old days back, when someone else was responsible.

What to do? Shelly has to decide whether to do something or let it go. When she gets to the point that the pain of ignoring the situation outweighs the pain of getting up the courage to speak, here are a few suggestions to consider.

Because it sounds like Jeff has a fairly high level of need for power and recognition, acknowledging and recognizing his accomplishments is a reasonable beginning.

“Jeff, we have a problem and we need your help. Everybody knows that you are a great worker with a lot of knowledge. What do you think we can do about our problem?”

Now, Jeff may say, “Move Jill.”

“Jeff, moving Jill is not an option. Will you help me and the team?”

Perhaps Jeff honestly believes that the team would improve without Jill. However, Jeff (and all the rest of us) need to work with other people, even when they don’t meet our expectations.

Getting along doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Sometimes it has to be taught, and some folks will only become interested in learning when they realize that it’s in their best interests.

Shelly’s most important job in this conversation may be to help Jeff recognize what he wants and how to get it. Based on his evident self-importance, what Jeff wants is to be recognized for his knowledge and success.

However, success requires that the team pull together, and that will only happen if Jeff learns to work with others.

Another suggestion for Shelly is to help Jeff self-evaluate by asking, “Is what you have been doing leading you to the result that you want?”

No matter how technically adept Jeff may be, his denigration of his own team member makes him look unhelpful rather than knowledgeable. What he is doing is working against what he wants.

What would you suggest to Shelly?

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