April 2011 | 

Team Challenge: Managing the Problematic Player

team challenge

When Google manager Wael Ghonim recently helped to organize the pro-democracy rebellion against Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarek, he caused more than just political turbulence. While Google made no official public statements about its now-famous marketing executive, a spokesperson did note that the company has "passionate employees" — a type it would seem most organizations could do without. A recent Wall Street Journal article described the widespread, common corporate response to Ghonim's involvement: "I'm glad the guy doesn't work for us."

Jeff Klein, director of Wharton's Graduate Leadership Program, notes, "Dealing with an employee like Ghonim — when you need to ask ‘how much leeway do you give an activist within a revolution?' — is, thankfully, not a prevalent concern. But recent research suggests that the new generation of employees cares strongly about the impact of their efforts, and they have less organizational loyalty. These new employees want to be a part of an effort that's bigger than themselves. The question becomes, how do you balance the needs of this strong individual with the needs of the organization? Can you create an alignment between the values of the individual and those of your organization?"

Wharton management professor Mike Useem agrees. "Ideally, you want strong people on your team. Talent, energy, and focus are all critical elements for moving any initiative forward. But that person also has to be a team player. There must be a balance between that person's needs and those of the company."

But how do you lead someone whose dominant focus is on the former? It's a question that Klein and Useem hear often. As co-academic directors of Wharton's Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams, they lead groups of executives in a week-long, intensive examination of how teams work. Here, they offer suggestions for dealing with strong (read: difficult) team members.

Align Around a Vision

Klein notes, "Creating a team in which people feel part of something larger than themselves and at the same time feel valued for their work and their contribution starts with a vision. In the program, we do some work with the Pig Iron Theater Company. There's a direct translation from developing a short play to the process of both creating teams and creating new products.

"First, Pig Iron invests a lot of time in making sure everyone is involved in the conversation. When you think about how complex organizational life is now, that's a feat — but it's a critical one. You need to get a team into a room and focused on a specific issue. Our theater teams have to decide on a story and create an original theater piece. They must create this shared vision before anyone is assigned a role, meaning they're working first as an undifferentiated team. They're peers. Once you have everyone on board with the vision, it's much easier to move forward."

Authorize Individuals to Act

"We need to move away from the corporate team model, where the job was to fulfill a set of tasks prescribed by senior leadership," says Klein. "Today, information travels quickly and the environment is much more dynamic. If every subordinate needs to ask the team leader what to do, and when and how to do it, you're not going to get anywhere."

"What makes more sense now is to use the military model of commander's Intent. As the team leader, you provide the objective and then allow each team member the flexibility to make decisions to fulfill it. By authorizing your employees to execute, you create that balance between the needs of the organization and those of the individual. When the team, and each of its members, is committed to a common vision and has the authorization to make decisions on behalf of the organization, you're setting up a team for high performance."

Learn by Example

Useem's co-authored and co-edited book with Wharton faculty colleague Howard Kunreuther, Learning from Catastrophes, includes the study of groups and companies operating under intense pressure, and it draws critical lessons for high-performing teams from such moments.

When asked how to teach team members to be better team players, Useem recommends the use of compelling accounts of teams under stress. "Study examples like the expedition of Ernest Shackleton with a team of 28 that survived Antarctica in 1914-16 against all odds," he says. "Look at teams of firefighters, such as those that battled a catastrophic wildfire in 1949 in a Montana wilderness. Consider the rescue team that retrieved the 33 men in 2010 from a Chilean mine. Understand how top management teams built the great start-ups of the past decade. Watch those responsible for company operations now."

Useem also cites Jon Krakauer's account of several teams seeking to reach the summit of Mt. Everest in 1996. "His book, Into Thin Air, can serve as a great textbook for thinking about teams and their leadership. Decisions taken by the mountain guides and team members proved critical for their survival on the upper ridge of Everest when a violent storm hit. Their experience provides graphic insight into how high-performing teams under high stress can achieve their goals but also avert disasters."

Useem continues, "Appreciating team experiences and leadership decisions, whether in Antarctica, Montana, and Chile, or on Mt. Everest, or as seen in those responsible for both start-ups and ongoing company operations, we can better appreciate and remember what is essential. Team leaders working to strengthen their teams can use such accounts to indelibly help ensure that their team members all pull in the right direction when it really counts."