Act quickly when your team starts to rot

Last week, I followed Carolins permanent advice once again and enhanced my diet by bying some fruit. The grapes looked very nice in the shop, but when I took them out of their plastic bag the next day, many of the ones at the bottom had already started to rot. To stop the mould from spreading, I had to throw away almost half of the bunch. If that happens with fruit, it’s at least annoying. But it gets really painful if it happens to your team.

Every manager likes to have a team that looks fresh and vibrant and meets his expectations. Sometimes, though, there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark — and like with my grapes, that rot tends to spread. One employee that airs negativity can eventually bring a whole team to the ground. He or she can become the proverbial one foul apple that spoils the barrel, as William Felps and Terence Mitchell of the University of Washington Business School found out recently. (I found the link on the Stronger Teams Blog)

A team member that radiates demotivation, disrespect towards colleagues or permanent dissatisfaction poisons the work atmosphere and can do severe harm to the team. The article cites an interesting example about the sudden and surprising improvement of attitude of a team when a certain employee got ill for a few days and the equally prompt swing back when he returned.

It’s important for a manager to identify employees that have the potential of deteriorating the performance and work satisfaction of their team and act upon it as early as possible. The best time to do that is in the recruitment phase. When I do job interviews, screening people that don’t fit my team is more important to me than deep knowledge or technical skills. If the interview went okay, I invite the candidate to a trial day where I can see how he or she interacts with my team. I can always teach an employee how to build a Linux cluster, but I can’t reeducate people that haven’t learned how to deal with dissatisfaction constructively. That’s why technical skills always are only my number two priority.

Seth Godin even thinks that job interviews are useless at all, because they don’t seem to give you the right results to base your hiring decision upon. I don’t agree completely, but I like how his juggling parable illustrates what’s important in recruiting: let people demonstrate how they kick ass instead of just talk about it. Involve your team and see how they get along, too.

Sometimes, unfortunately, a lack of social skills doesn’t show from the beginning. That’s when a manager has to deal with the tough decision of what to do with that person. In some cases, it’s sufficient to “put them into quarantine” by giving them tasks that don’t require much team interaction. There are some people, though, where the only reasonable choice is letting them go. Both for the company and for the employee, that’s the worst possible outcome.

That’s why it’s imperative to see the signs of rot and draw the consequences as early as possible.