Managing the awkward team member

any of your team-building exercises ever been thwarted by awkward
characters?  Richard Wilkes looks at how
team leaders can overcome difficult personality types and become more

organisations seem to have a love affair with teamwork, to the extent that
throwing together a group of individuals and asking them to combine their
energies and resourcefulness is often the stock response when any new issue or
goal is highlighted.

means project teams, departmental teams, client teams or even virtual teams.
And one thing will always be certain – it’s a universal law of teamwork that
among the different individuals that make up the teams, there will always be at
least one person that the leader finds difficult to manage.

you want to break this law, you need a knowledge and awareness of the different
types of "awkward team member" that you might come across.

with this insight, you can begin to appreciate the real value of these people
and this will help you to co-ordinate their work, coach and appraise them more

help with this worthy endeavour, here’s three typical work scenarios. Each
includes six different responses, showing how different individuals may react to
the circumstances presented.

scenarios are followed by a quick analysis, together with a few tips for
managing some of the more common types of awkward team member.

three scenarios

 1  The
team meeting
– At the team meeting, you raise the prospect of a new project
that requires the team to work together on a proposal. How would the awkward
individual in your team respond?

We’ll have to work late and then the proposal will only get vetoed at board
level – what’s the point of even starting it?

It could be a good idea, but maybe we should wait and see if someone else comes
up with a better suggestion.

We don’t need a proposal. My mate in supplies will give us a good deal, let’s
just get on with it.

I’ve got two other proposals to finish before Thursday, I’m never going to have
the time.

If we can conceptualise the visionary capability, it could be a TQM solution.

Well if no one else is free, I suppose I’ll have to do it.

2  Formal performance review  – At the end of their appraisal interview,
you ask if your awkward individual has any comments. How would he/she respond?

What’s the point? If I said something positive I’d be lying and if I criticise,
I’ll get demoted.

I think that went well, do you think that went well? I think that went very
well, don’t you?

Nah, let’s leave it there and push off outta here.

No I’ve got to go, I’m 20 minutes late already.

Yes – I’d like to point out that the feedback assessment form 311b has a
paragraphical error of syntax.

Well… there was… no, whatever you say.

3  In your office – The awkward
individual has been late for three days in succession. You’ve called them into
your office to have a quiet word. How would he/she react?

I’ll get here at 6.30am tomorrow and read the paper for three hours like
everyone else. At least when I do get here I start work straight away.

Well I was late, yes, but the train was late. Do you think I should have got
the earlier train?  

What are you having a go at me for, I’m here now aren’t I?

Stop picking on me. It’s not my fault. I’ve got too much to do. I just can’t
get it all done.

The 7.42 used to arrive at 8.27, but with the rail delays, I’m not getting in
until 8.51 and its a 23 minute walk from the station.

You’re right. It’s my fault. Sorry, I’ll try not to be late again.


you’ve no doubt surmised, the six options given for each of the scenarios
relate to the same six personality types. For the purpose of further enlightenment,
let’s ascribe some names to these characters.

  An individual who can demoralise the
team with their constantly negative outlook.

  Someone who procrastinates because
they can never take action unless it has been specifically endorsed by another.

  A thick-skinned individual who
charges in, often without due consideration for the feelings of others.

Chicken –  Somebody who lacks
self-control and panics under the pressure of their burden.

Alien –  An individual who, in an
attempt to impress others, will never use one word when five will do.

Upon – A soft touch, who lacks the word "no" in their vocabulary and
suffers dire consequences.


is a beautiful thing, but it is not enough simply to recognise the
characteristics. You need some strategies for dealing with these kinds of
people. Try the following tips:


all too easy to let the Cynic stand on the sidelines and pour scorn and cold
water over every new idea. Get them more involved.

a "funnel-down" technique – ask them what they don’t like, what they
would like to see, how they would go about it and where they would start. Do
something positive to ensure that some of their suggestions are actually
followed through.

are often intelligent individuals who, for whatever reason, feel marginalised.
Actively engage and include them and give them responsibility – let them use
their insight for the benefit of the whole team.


Fence-sitter is worried about putting other people’s noses out of joint if they
put their views forward.

and give what they say as much value as possible (without being patronising) by
encouraging them to follow through their words with actions. For example, if
they agree with a particular idea put forward at a meeting, ask them to help
see it through.

approach may force the Fence-sitter to jump down and feel the earth beneath
their feet – and enjoy it!


the Rhino raises its horn, everyone wants to run and hide. However, underneath
that thick skin can be a highly motivated and committed team player.  

that aggression with tasks that will force a Rhino to put his/her money where
their mouth is. It might also be useful to give the Rhino responsibility for
coaching or mentoring a less vocal member of the team – it may help to harness
that energy and focus it usefully.

agree a team code of conduct to ensure those horns are kept lowered.

Headless Chicken

creature is running around all stressed out by taking on too much work and not
knowing where or how to begin.

them to prioritise. Reassure them that they can refuse a particular task –
without letting themselves or the team down.  

Headless Chicken is often someone who doesn’t want to be left out and therefore
throws themselves into everything. Use that energy in a focussed way by
agreeing with them a "one-thing-at-a-time" policy.

Space Alien

patient! Jargon is often a defence and a barrier that people put up to make them
seem more important to others. If you ask for clarification on everything they
say, it may help them to articulate more clearly.

an arduous task but it could be worth it as some useful ideas may well be lurking
under that extraterrestrial exterior.

useful exercise might be to ask them to prepare a presentation or a report that
has to be understood by people external to the team – a client perhaps. Give
them some guidance on areas that might be unfocussed.

Dumped Upon

just give them work to do – ask what they would like to do. This approach may
throw them at first, but slowly you might be able to play them to their

individuals probably have a lifetime’s experience of being dumped upon and it
could take time for them to realise they have an element of choice in their

their decision-making process. Try to ensure that others in the team do not
dump on them either. You may find you are surprised by their hidden potential.  


members need clear and agreed objectives and they need to know how their part
fits into the whole. As the team leader, you’ll have to resolve communications
issues, areas of conflict, personality clashes and differences of opinion.
What’s more, you’ll have to manage commitment and motivation and encourage
performance improvement.

before you can do any of that, you need to fundamentally recognise the
diversity of the individuals that make up your team.

this quiz has taken a tongue-in-cheek approach, the central message here is
that if you can appreciate people’s needs and manage them as individuals in an
environment of respect, you’ll find that each type of person has their place in
the team. Adopting such a mind-set can help you break the universal law of
teamwork. From then on, you’ll begin to add more value, the team members will
individually be more effective and the team as a whole will become more

Wilkes is a director of Steps Role Play

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