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How to deal with a difficult team member

All project managers will encounter a disruptive or bullying team member. PM expert David Christiansen explains how keep rudeness in check and encourage your team to work well together.

How do I deal with the bossy person? He's always interrupting and doesn't listen to anyone else. He has experience but no manners. We are a small group working together and he is a problem. I'm the leader and trying to be polite because he knows a lot, but he's bothering everyone.

This is a great question since almost everyone has experienced a bossy, controlling, bullying, or generally inconsiderate team member at some point in their career.

Some people simply will not behave -- if that is the case I recommend getting rid of the person any way you can. I once had a project team member who was very controlling and would not change his behavior no matter how many times we discussed the issue. I couldn't fire him from the company, but I could remove him from my project, which I did, even though I could not replace him. The project team, though one person smaller, was much more productive afterwards.

If you are interested in learning more about the impact of bullies, jerks, and generally mean people on organizations, I'd suggest you read The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't (pardon the obscenity -- it is a great book, no matter what you think of the title) by Bob Sutton.

Other people aren't that extreme. All of us are rude and inconsiderate from time to time. For these people, I suggest creating a few simple rules and a system of feedback that help people understand how to play well together.

Here are four rules I created for a project team with "strong" personalities:

  • Know the difference between different and better

  • Everyone who can contribute is allowed to

  • Be title-blind contributors

  • Have thick skin, shed no tears, and bear no grudges

  • To enforce these rules, we used a game called Instant Feedback. Every day, I would distribute four poker cards to every team member -- two red cards and two black. Red cards were complimentary, and black cards were for rule breakers. Any time a team member exhibited good behavior, the others would give him or her a red card. When people misbehaved, black cards were shared. At the end of the day, all the cards were returned to me.

    Software testing resources:
    Project management: How to compose a project team

    Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game -- Chapter 3, Communicating, Cooperating Teams

    Seven ways to keep your software projects in motion

    This simple system was fun and encouraged a sort of polite toughness within the team. We began to listen to each other and to behave more appropriately, without holding back our opinions or objections.

    This approach emulates the Agile belief that teams should regulate themselves. It isn't the exclusive responsibility of the project manager to promote teamwork -- everyone needs to help if you're going to be successful.

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