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After a truly horrific couple of weeks, the Sunday Times reported last weekend that Tory MPs have given Theresa May 10 days to ‘shape up – or ship out’. Hardly an enviable position to be in. But she’s not the first and won’t be the last leader to lose the support and goodwill of her team.

But what are your options if this happens to you? Do you even have any…?

Don’t Pretend It’s Not Happening

The ‘head in the sand’ reaction – while understandably tempting – is rarely an effective long term answer. Ignoring a problem won’t make it go away, in fact it usually makes things much worse. So put your big boy or girl pants on and set out to…

Identify And Address The Root Cause

The first rule of problem solving is ‘define the problem’ – so approach this in the same way. Write down in clear terms exactly what the issue in the team is, what it looks like, and how it is making you feel. Sometimes just doing this can help neutralise some of the anxiety many leaders in this situation feel as it will help you fully understand what you are dealing with. Then once you have done this you can set about trying to work out the root cause.  Which might not be easy: so to help you begin, you could…

Find Someone To Talk To

Crystallising the issue for yourself will make it easier for you to articulate what’s going on to someone else. Find someone you trust with whom to talk this all through. An independent third party perspective is likely to be helpful, both in terms of identifying possible root causes, and mapping out what steps you might take to resolve the issue with your team. It’s a particularly good idea to approach someone who you know will be honest with you, as exploring team issues like these are sometimes uncomfortable for leaders. In other words, you’re likely to need to…  

Look In The Mirror

Is there anything in your leadership style that might have created or contributed towards negativity in the team? Be honest – you won’t get anywhere if you’re not prepared to admit the truth to yourself. For example, how far do you consider the impact of your actions and decisions on your people? How would you rate your ability to communicate, delegate and listen to them? Have you ever asked them for their honest feedback on you as a leader?  If you suspect that the root cause might have something to do with you – then you need to be prepared to accept this. And not only that – but act on it. An open conversation your team – either altogether, or in the form of one-to-ones – with a bit of humility and a genuine desire to listen and improve could pay enormous dividends. The real test of course will be in identifying what personal changes to make, and how you can sustain these. It takes courage and hard work, but I have seen leaders brave enough to admit they got things wrong in the past turn seemingly dire team situations around with aplomb.  

Of course, it might be that the problem isn’t you at all – in which case you may need to…

Identify And Address ‘Problem Individuals’

Quite often the root cause of what seems to be a whole team issue can be traced to one or two people with a negative attitude infecting the rest of the team.

If this is the case, then swift and decisive action is essential. You have to deal with trouble making or insubordination straight away, regardless of how busy you are or how much you dislike conflict.  Treat it as you would any other performance issue. Hold a one-to-one meeting with any individuals concerned. Share with them the specific examples of the behaviour you view as unacceptable (such as repeatedly criticising your decisions) and spell out what the impact of their behaviour has been (such as on the attitude or performance of the rest of the team). Explain that such behaviour is not acceptable, because it not only affects their ability to work as part of the team, but undermines the performance of the team as a whole. Make clear what acceptable behaviour looks like, and agree some targets around this if necessary, together with a date to review. Explain in specific terms what the consequences will be if their behaviour doesn’t change. Emphasise that while you are open to debate, hearing other suggestions, and accept that not everyone will always agree with you, there is a line to be drawn and you will not tolerate behaviour that’s obstructive, inappropriate or unprofessional.

But Remember To Treat Everyone With Respect

To increase your chances of a successful outcome in these situations it’s important to adopt a self-assured and adult demeanour. You might think their behaviour has been childish but don’t start telling them off and don’t get angry. Or maybe you find them a little intimidating, or you dislike openly tackling difficult people situations like this – in which case, you’ll need to quickly brush up on your assertiveness skills. Either way, you must treat them with respect: they might not have been fully aware of how they’ve been coming across, the damage they’ve done or the possible ramifications for themselves. It’s not always easy but if you can show them a bit of the respect you are asking them to show you, and are prepared to listen to their side of the story (though you may not agree with it, of course) then you will know you’ve handled the issue in a fair manner, with professionalism and skill. In these situations, I have seen some team members accept corrective feedback and improve their attitude to the benefit of all. I have also seen some people who are unprepared to make the required changes within the agreed time frame, shown the door. Sometimes this is unavoidable and necessary, so be prepared to follow through.

As for Mrs May, it will be interesting to watch what changes she makes to her leadership style over the coming days – if any. Leadership takes courage. And the true test of a great leader is when crisis hits….

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