How best to manage the 'babies' on a team

Not everyone is easy to work with. If they were, managers would have infinitely easier jobs. You might think you work with a bunch of babies, but it's up to you to find ways to make your team work despite its faults.

Columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.  Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on our sister site, TechRepublic.

You sound like a logical or organized guy. A lot of your advice and insight assumes that you’re also dealing with logical and organized people. However, as you know, not everyone works that way. I seem to have the challenge of always working with babies. They don’t want to follow structure. They don’t seem to think it is a problem if they don’t meet their commitments. They seem to whine about all kinds of little things, and then if I ask them to focus on their job, I am the bad guy. How can you put good processes into place when you are working with babies?

I think a lot of people can relate to your situation and to your frustration. It’s difficult to have a vision and plan for how a team should operate together, then not be able to make it work. Obviously team dynamics can be complex, and whenever you work with people, there are never any answers that work for everyone. This is a topic where your process management skills are not going to carry the day. Being able to create a good budget or negotiate a contract effectively is not going to help you in your situation. You are going to have to polish your people management skills.

Start with management and leadership
I have mentioned before a quote that I heard from a previous manager many years ago. She stated very seriously that she could be a better manager if she only had better people to manage. Well, people are people, and there are many types of people with many different motivations. Fortunately there are also many different management techniques for working with people.

So, the place to start in answering your question is to make sure that you are doing what you can as a manager and a leader. The bottom line to start with is that if you are a poor manager (and I’m not saying that you are), then you will have a difficult time getting your team to respect you and to follow your vision.

Be good at the basics
There are some skills and techniques that need to be a part of every manager’s toolset when it comes to managing people. These are core skills, and it is difficult to be effective without them. These include:
  • Good listening skills to make sure you understand what people are saying to you. When team members come to see you, don’t also be working on your computer or answering phone messages.
  • Empathy and concern about individual team members that let people know you care about them and their concerns.
  • Proactive communication skills to make sure people know what is going on and what is expected of them. Walk around and see people and tell them when they are doing a good job.

Model good behavior
Many managers lose credibility because they ask the team to do certain things that they do not do themselves. For instance, if you are a 9-5 person, it’s going to be difficult to get your team to put in extra hours when needed. You can’t ask the team to follow scope change processes if you don’t follow the same process for changes that you want. If teams see inconsistent or politically motivated behavior from you, they will not be inclined to go out of their way to follow you where you want to go.

Look for situational management needs
After you make sure you’re covering the basics in terms of people management and that you’re walking the walk yourself, it’s time to see what additional techniques you think will work well with the team. Some people need to have more space and freedom to do their jobs, and other people need to be focused through short assignments with very targeted end dates.

On some teams, people want to have a minimum number of short meetings, while on other, larger teams, people may prefer the structure of more formal meetings. I always try to sit back and mentally brainstorm ideas for things I could do to try to be more effective in managing teams. The lists are always different, depending on the circumstances.

The challenge is still with management
All that being said, there are some situations that are very difficult to manage. When I was a consultant, I worked at a company that was having financial difficulty. People were unhappy, the stock was tanking, and employees were quitting in droves. New employees that were hired were placed into this poisonous atmosphere and soon became tainted themselves.

In my opinion, the situation was deteriorated further by management’s reluctance to communicate proactively about what was going on. They remained aloof and appeared to be uncaring. However, against that backdrop there were some managers that I thought were very good and were trying to keep their teams motivated and focused. In spite of the problems around them, they at least focused on the management basics, modeled good behavior, and tried to do other things based on the people on the team and the environment they worked in. It appeared these managers were relatively successful in spite of the odds.

You can tell by this column that I still think the challenge of dealing with a difficult team lies with the manager. I don’t know one style that will work with all people, and I don’t know any magic techniques for dealing with “babies.” What I do know is that people are all different, teams are all different, and projects are all different. A manager needs to be consistent in terms of fundamentals, and then he needs to look at the specific situation he faces and find effective ways to manage and lead the team.

As I look back on the comments my manager friend made many years ago, I realize that you do not need to be a good manager and leader if your team is made up of motivated superstars. However, it does take a good manager and leader to take a team that is having problems and mold it into a high-performing (or even a normal-performing) team. That is where your management challenge lies. If readers have other ideas, post them in the discussion board below or send us an e-mail here.

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