TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

He Works for Me but Constantly Argues!

Advice for managers on how to handle a team member who won't back down.

I'm lucky. I like the people I work with. My company has what I call a "culture of nice," and the people are considerate, socially conscious, and kind. Our culture actually intrinsically rewards these traits. (There's a downside to a culture of nice, too, but we'll go there another time.) Moreover, the people who work on my team are all smart, chill, and funny. It makes for a pleasant and productive workday.

For Further Reading:

Technological Breakthroughs and Trusting Your Team

Careers: The Case for Specialization

Data Science as a Team Sport: Building a Culture Open to Risk

I haven't always been this lucky. I used to joke that if I wanted to work with people I liked I'd be working in lighthouse-keeping. That's where Christopher is right now, and it's not a happy place.

Dear Jill:

I'm the manager of a regulatory compliance team for a multinational bank. We're a very busy, visible group, and we do a lot of data gathering and analysis.

A guy on my team (I'll call him Mike) and I aren't seeing eye to eye on whether or not to build out self-service capabilities for our core compliance reporting. Over half the reports we send out are repeat reports. Mike says we should continue to build these reports because it gives us exposure to executives. I say we could teach these executives how to build their own reports, thus freeing up team members to work on advanced analytics projects.

I originally wrote this question thinking you could answer that for us, but now I'm wondering what I should do about Mike. This isn't the first time we've had an ideological debate. Mike gets heated and petulant and doesn't back down. On top of that, he's overly dramatic and will leave work when he doesn't win an argument. This over-the-top behavior not only affects our productivity, the rest of the team has become concerned and I'm afraid it's affecting morale.

I regret hiring Mike, but now I'm stuck. What would you do if you were me?

-- Christopher, location not given

Christopher, your email sparked a memory of that feeling of utter dread I'd get when I had to go talk to a loose cannon on a work issue. It got especially strong when I had to ask for something. You probably feel that every day.

I don't have enough info to tell you what to do here. (Though I lean toward supporting self-service if your execs are up for it! They might be just as frustrated with turnaround times as you are at having to do repeat work.)

On the Mike issue, you haven't said whether you've spoken privately with him, but I'll assume you have and the problem persists. Given that, here are some other ideas.

Talk to HR

This is the requisite advice, but I have to give it. Those of us in tech often underestimate our HR departments. Many HR professionals have toolboxes full of good ideas. Some offer formal intermediation between managers and their employees or coworkers. An objective HR manager can determine how serious your situation with Mike is and advise you on corporate policy for this kind of thing.

For instance, the company might offer conflict resolution or mediation services. It might even pay for anger management counseling for Mike. Your HR team could very well alleviate some of the burden you've been putting on yourself.

Coach Mike Out of Your Department

You haven't said Mike doesn't have the skills to do the job. Maybe -- and I say this with love -- you share some of the responsibility for your working relationship with him? For instance, Mike might see you as too passive or risk averse. In that case, there might be openings on teams that are more aligned with Mike's work style.

Compliance reporting could be too deliberate for a guy like Mike. Maybe he'd enjoy contract negotiations that could leverage his interactive style and sense of fairness? I would discuss this option with HR, but if the two of you have entrenched behaviors, finding Mike a more appropriate role might be doing you both a favor.

Incorporate More Team Building

You mentioned Mike's behavior was affecting the team, but you didn't say what that looked like. Would some team building show people another side of Mike? My team starts all our meetings off with a fun icebreaker activity. We've all worked together for years, but we nevertheless learn something new about each other each time. A shared project, such as donating a day or two to a Habitat for Humanity house or videotaping dogs at an animal shelter, could break down interpersonal barriers. A change of scenery combined with a good cause is a great antidote to workplace tensions.

Legendary chef and founder of the farm-to-table movement Alice Waters recently shared her teamwork philosophy with Harvard Business Review.

I hire people who bring different talents and cultivate a collaborative spirit ... Everybody on the cooking team can say something about what's being cooked. It's not a pyramid where the vegetable choppers do all the prep work ... and the chefs cook.... The chefs wash and dry the salad too, and we all taste the dish. You learn something when you work with food from beginning to end, and if you are listening to people['s opinions], they feel like they're part of something bigger.

Listen One More Time

Do something hard. Tell Mike you'll give him three minutes to make his case for continuing report building (not against self-service). During that time you won't respond or react to what he's saying, though you may take notes. Play back what you heard and allow Mike to clarify some points. Again, don't respond or react. (You're smart, so this will take some discipline.) Then explain that you understand his position, and you will factor it into your final decision, then tell Mike when that will be.

Regardless of whether he's happy with the outcome, Mike will feel heard. Hopefully, it might keep you out of that lighthouse for a while.

About the Author

Jill Dyché has advised clients and executive teams on their analytics and data programs for as long as she can remember. Longer, in fact. She’s the author of four books on the business value of technology and regularly talks to teams about what keeps them up at night. Ambivalent about analytics? Maddened by management? Constricted by your culture? Check out Jill’s Q&A column, Q&A with Jill Dyché, here.

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