Archive for the ‘Team Work’ Category

Dealing with Prima Donnas

This post is about how managers can deal with people who are precious to your team but come with toxic behaviour.   Though my experience has been almost entirely in the software industry where this is a big problem, I think the problem exists in almost all fields.

Here are various definitions of the term “Prima Donna”:

  • a very temperamental person with an inflated view of his/her own talent or importance
  • a person who is difficult to please and who expects to be treated better than everyone else
  • a vain or undisciplined person who finds it difficult to work under direction or as part of a team

You probably see a few of them around in your organisation.

Prima donnas are Problematic

  1. They can damage the team spirit that you have so carefully built
  2. Others resent the special attention they manage to get – the unhappiness spreads
  3. They reduce your moral authority when you break your own rules to accommodate them
  4. They are a permanent source of irritation
  5. They create huge management overheads
  6. They set bad examples for juniors

But they are Precious

If such people were not precious to the organization, it would be easy to cast them aside.  The problem is, when such people possess unique knowledge, skills, and capabilities that make them indispensible.

While knowledge may be picked up by others, it is nearly impossible to replace these prima donnas who possess special but rare-to-find skills.

It can be a headache

When rules are bent to accommodate their demands it creates a bad precedent within the organization.  There is the hard working, team player who always puts the organization ahead of himself and does not complain.  He feels short changed when he sees the prima donna succeed in having his way.

Once, anxious not to lose such a prima-donna on my team, I offered him a unique pay package.  I then ended up spending the next six months dealing with simmering discontent within the organisation.

The problem is: you need both of them

You need the problematic specialist who can solve problems no one else can, as well as the team player who is always there when needed.

Here are a few tips to consider when a problem like this turns into a crisis and you find yourself between a rock and a hard place.

Short term solutions

  1. Reach out to your team through informal channels and tell them that you are aware of the problem, but also that you do not see an immediate solution; that everybody has to live with it in the short term.  Do not assume that the quiet, uncomplaining types do not feel hurt; reach out to them.  Assuage their hurt.
  2. Place emotionally strong and committed team players in the group.  Tell them explicitly that their task is to reduce the impact of the prima donna.
  3. Bargain hard with the problematic guy: give favours in return for good behaviour rather than task completion.  But do this very carefully.  Keep looking for opportunities to replace the guy as soon as you can.
  4. Keep yourself cool.  That sets an example for others to show that one can manage in spite of the situation.
  5. Assess the cost vs. benefits calmly. “Can I really do without the expert? Can I manage the destruction he causes?  How easy or difficult is it to replace him?”  Don’t rush to fire the expert in anger.  Don’t let fear overcome you either.

After much thought, a chartered accountant recently fired the only employee who was most familiar with his clients’ accounts, but had become impossible to manage.  He is living through the crisis but is delighted that he found his courage when he needed it.

  1. Accept the situation.  You may feel the guilt of not being fair with others.  Don’t be harsh on yourself.  It is ok.  You cannot be fair all the time.
  2. Don’t fall for arguments from the cynics.  Don’t let them make you feel that you no longer have the moral authority to enforce team rules.

Some ideas for the long term

  1. Create an environment where those who do not complain get as much attention as others. Set this culture in your team.  Remember that deliberate actions repeated over time define the way things are done in your team.
  2. Constantly try to reduce knowledge “dark spots” even when there is no crisis.  Encourage a culture of knowledge sharing.  Remind people that “Nobody cares about what you know, until they know that you care about them.”  Reward knowledge sharing as much as learning.
  3. Use tools and processes to simplify, share, and collaborate.  Sometimes merely enforcing transparency can do the trick.
  4. Tell people that they must have the humility to accept the Specialist for his superior knowledge or skills.  They will also have to tolerate his idiosyncrasies.  Set expectations amongst them such that the problem is manageable.
  5. Your time is precious and there is only so much to spend on “face-time” with team members.  But don’t let the loudest child hog the most time.  Spend good time with the committed but quiet people.
  6. Watch out for individuals who refuse to share their knowledge.  If you can afford it, set “buffers” around such people before the problem gets out of hand.
  7. Examine whether an executive coach may be of help to change the problem guy’s attitude.  Remember that coaching works only if the person himself is willing to change.

In some work environments and industries this problem will never go away.    This is especially so where the specialist has skills that others don’t.  What else can one do in such cases other than getting used to it!


Effective Delegation and Task Tracking – Starting with a To-Do List

“Effective delegation and task tracking” is an essential skill to ensure Happiness At Work

In addition to client projects, most of the strategic initiatives are also really projects and need to be managed as such. Task identification, assignment, and tracking are fundamental to the success of a project/strategic initiative.

However, many managers struggle with the idea of delegating projects/tasks and thereby remaining in control of the progress. This is a must-learn hard skill for all managers, which seems to be woefully missing – at least in the SMB segment. Lack of systems is a major reason, but lack of awareness seems to be the real cause. I have seen this cause a lot of heart-burn, ill-feeling and “supposed” communication issues, affecting the “Happiness at Work” for the managers in-charge of such projects, their team members and the clients/executives who are sponsors of these projects.

This article explains how a simple To-Do list can get you started in the right direction.

Many managers just talk about what needs to be done.

Whenever there is a project or a special initiative, the Manager in charge of the project explains the tasks to the team. Sometimes there is a periodic (daily/weekly etc.) team meeting where the Manager describes the tasks for each team member. Some team members take notes; others just listen. And then they perform the tasks as best as they can remember and understand them.

Many a time, things fall through the crack because who is supposed to own them has not been clearly specified. “Everybody thought Somebody will do it, but Nobody did it!

At other times, there are quality issues because of poor understanding of exactly what was to be done. The knowledge about work performed in the project is lost when people leave the organization.

A manager may be able to manage one or two simple projects using such informal and verbal instruction only approach. But managing more projects using this approach is certainly challenging, even for the most capable. And certainly not recommended for your most important strategic initiatives!

So the logical next step is to create a written list of tasks for the team.

You can implement a To-Do list in many ways.

I have seen managers routinely using whiteboards or asking their subordinates to use diaries / notebooks for keeping track of tasks. There are many other media such a To-Do list can use. For example,

  • Daily printout for each team member
  • Email to each team member
  • A shared excel sheet with list of tasks for all team members

At a minimum, a To-Do list should capture, for each task, the following:

  • Task Description – Detailed information
  • Assigned To – Person responsible for carrying out the task
  • Task Status – Not Started, Work in Progress, On Hold (Due to some reason explained as a comment), Completed.
  • Target/Due date (optional) – Date by which the task has to be completed.
  • Priority (optional) – Assigning priority to Tasks helps team members schedule their own work in accordance with the project requirements.

Comparative analysis of various approaches:

Notepads and printed lists, though convenient, are not easy to share, and status updates require additional effort from team members. In fact, the dreaded Status Meetings are a result of such methods used for Task Tracking. In addition, copying, carrying forward tasks or reassignment requires additional effort.

A shared Excel sheet frequently serves well for small projects and teams. Each person has a complete visibility, and status updates can occur offline. However, with shared files, there are issues with simultaneous updates, overwriting each other’s changes, etc. Keeping track of history of the updates is also challenging and requires special effort for version control.

Shared Task Tracking System for the team simplifies communication.

Work assignment and progress reporting becomes much simpler with a centralized task tracking system. Such a system can be used to define, assign, and track tasks and helps segregate the functions of Planning (Task Identification), Scheduling (Resource Identification and Task Assignment) and Tracking (Monitoring progress against plan).

And of course, the same techniques/systems are useful for day-to-day task assignments and action items generated from various meetings.

A web based Task Tracking system is ideal when the team members may not be co-located.

It is simple, easy, and increases team effectiveness.

According to Peter Drucker, one of the secrets of being effective is taking responsibility for communication.

“Whenever I, … start to work with an organization, the first thing I hear about are all the personality conflicts. Most of these arise from the fact that people do not know what other people are doing …, or what contribution the other people are concentrating on and what results they expect.” – (Classic Drucker – HBR 2006 – “Managing Oneself”)

A shared To-Do list goes a long way in developing this understanding and increasing the overall effectiveness of the team.

Success begets success.

The list of completed tasks creates a sense of achievement for individuals and the team. And as Zig Ziggler says, action creates motivation, which is not bad for the success of the project and happiness of the team!

Conflict In Teams May Be A Good Thing!

One source of unhappiness at work is conflict within teams.

We simply cannot understand why the other person has to behave the way he does, in team situations.

“He comes late.” “He is unprepared for meetings.” “She calls too many meetings.” “She disagrees with everything I say in meetings.” and so on.

Here is an alternate view of the situation: People come with different inherent traits. These play out in variety of behaviours. When we fail to understand why the person behaves that way, we feel unhappy.

Dr Meredith Belbin has created a model for various team roles. Here is a short description:

Action Oriented Roles

Shaper: Dynamic, extroverted people who challenge the team to improve.

May be seen as argumentative.

Implementer: They get things done. Convert ideas into practical plans and into actions.

May be seen as inflexible and resistant to change.

Completer-Finisher: Pay great attention to details. Dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Perfectionists.

Prone to anxiety, refusal to delegate.

People Oriented Roles

Co-ordinator: Interested in building consensus within teams. Excellent listeners. Want to guide the group towards common objectives.

May tend to be manipulative.

Team Worker: Supportive, do what is needed for the team rather than what interests them. Flexible, diplomatic.

May be indecisive, maintain unclear positions during decision making.

Resource Investigator: Well networked outside the team. They can sell the team’s ideas to others and get necessary resources.

May lose enthusiasm quickly, over optimistic.

Thought Oriented Roles

Plant: Creative innovators. Introverted, like to work alone rather than in a team.

Cannot take criticism, may be poor communicators.

Monitor Evaluator: Can analyse ideas. Carefully weigh pros and cons before coming to a decision.

May be perceived as detached, unemotional.

Specialist: Pride themselves in their deep knowledge, skills, abilities. They constantly keep learning in their field of expertise.

Pre-occupation with technicalities, unable to see the big picture.

We can easily see that each of us tend to play a few roles more than others. We are also likely to show some of the weaknesses described.

We could learn to appreciate the other members style, role and contribution.

We could also learn to tolerate their weaknesses. We can stop assigning them labels such as “unprofessional” or “enemy” and do ourselves a ton of good.

Indeed, a diversity in traits is necessary for the success your projects!  Developing a tolerance for this diversity will not just make you successful but happier too.