Team members who are swimming the wrong way

Is there someone at your work who is doing completely the opposite of what everyone else is doing?

Are they acting inconsistently with the values that are shared by everyone else?

Is this person influencing others to join them in going against the flow?

A Deputy Principal I know uses a lovely metaphor to describe such individuals. She says that most team members are like fish swimming in a school – they are following the leaders out front, they are swimming in a coordinated way, and they are heading in the same direction. 

But difficult team members, she says, are swimming in the opposite direction, bumping or rubbing up against other fish, sometimes influencing other fish to join them, creating more disharmony.

So, what can you do if you have a fish, sorry, team member, who is exhibiting aberrant behaviour?

It can help to first think about which of the following explanations might be a good fit:

  1. Is the fish unhappy or unwell? I think that 90% of people who are behaving in difficult ways usually have something at home or work they are unhappy about. While this does not excuse their behaviour, it can help to explain it. We may be in a position to support them with the challenges or take action in relation to those challenges that are within our control. At the very least, such knowledge will help us to not take their behaviour personally. 
  2. Is the fish confused? Yes, you shouldn’t have to tell people that you need their cooperation, to ask for help if they need it, and to speak to you directly if they have concerns. But people are not mind readers. You can’t assume that people always know what you need, appreciate or expect. So, it is important that you are specific about the behaviours you appreciate or need to see. Even for people going through personal problems, reasonable expectations can still be communicated and perhaps linked with supportive actions to be taken by the workplace. 
  3. Is the right bait being used? Great fishers know their fish. They use the right bait for the right fish, finding out what individual team members really care about. Some are motivated by relationships – the general rule being that good relationships + trust = greater influence. Others are motivated by power and recognition – having a say in decisions that affect their work and receiving genuine, positive feedback. Some are motivated by discomfort – such as you following through with them to see how they are going with agreed actions. 
  4. Can you improve the fish’s environment? Here you are changing the tank or pond so that it is easier for all fish to perform well and behave in the desired way. Changing things is often easier than changing people. Examples include introducing change in small steps, providing training, revising and simplifying systems, ensuring that minutes of meetings are clear about ‘who is going to do what, by when’, arranging follow up meetings to hold people accountable, and linking them with other team members who are supportive of change. 
  5. Can you use the pressure of other fish? A powerful way to influence change is to engage team members with a discussion of group norms - the values and behaviours they all wish to share – the rules of the team, so to speak. It is essential that senior and middle managers are leading the way in setting the right example. Any document that is developed needs to be kept alive – where successful examples are celebrated and individuals who are acting inconsistently are followed up with - checking they are OK or giving them a reminder about what is expected. There will also be the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure from other team members to conform. 
  6. Is it the right pond for the fish? Some people are simply not a good fit for the role or the workplace they are in. Where possible, support is given to help that person to transition to a better fitting role, team or workplace. Alternatively, the other team members are supported in coping well or working around the problem team member. Sometimes, you just have to keep swimming.

Remember that going against the flow is not necessarily a bad thing. It can indicate creative, independent thinking and reveal what this person is motivated by.

Furthermore, conformity does not necessarily mean engagement. Even dead fish can go with the flow.

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