Managing a Team (and their external pressures)

Andrew Weaver
May 6, 2020

Managing a team is not only about managing people, but understanding that some reactions in work, are all to do with pressures away from work.

This article looks at our experience of some unusual external factors and why it’s important to manage with empathy

If you’re a senior manager then you might be lucky (or have recruited exceptionally well) and have built or inherited a smooth running and fully complementary team. They work hard, achieve great results and regularly meet in the local hostelry, for much self congratulation about how their sum is clearly much greater than the parts.

But in reality, teams don’t always gel, management is often challenging as people are rarely straight forward.

One of the main challenges with managing people is the way they act with you, might be very different from the way they act with others. People will often have different work “personalities” depending on who they are with.

Whilst everyone should be aiming for professional and cordial relationships in the workplace, we have all experienced times when this breaks down and often with catastrophic consequences for a team and potentially, for the wider business.

For the successful manager, empathy and reading of others is a crucial skill set when handling disruption or disagreements within a team. Your natural assumption will be that disagreements are being driven by work related issues but, from my experience, it’s often to do with external pressures and strains and work becomes a place to vent.

As an experienced CTO, with more years than I care to remember under my belt, I’ve been on the receiving end of a few ‘ventings’ over my career.

One vivid memory was getting a full ‘hair dryer treatment’ (UK = serious and public telling off) in front of the whole office from one business partner, over what was a very minor disagreement. I assumed he’d misunderstood my position but either way, it as an emotional and not a rational response.

Only later did I find out that he had recently over extended himself financially with what turned out to be a very complicated private life. Clearly wasn’t something I could have known at the time, but it was a salutary lesson that immediate reactions in work, are sometimes masking external factors and it’s important as a manager that you take a step back and a wider view.

More amusingly, someone in my team submitted a very surprising and immediate resignation citing family health issues they had to deal with. We had our suspicions and it soon came to light that rather than having to deal with a sick grandmother, she was about to be sentenced to some custodial time for a criminal misdemeanour. You can’t do much planning or training for that type of scenario.

Spotting whether a problem employee just got out of bed the wrong side (I’ve had a few of those!) or there is deeper problem self inflicted or externally is tricky. A bad day is a bad day but if it expands into weeks or months then there is more likely to be an underlying problem.

I’ve listed some extreme examples that couldn’t be predicted or managed but, what about those situations that primarily need understanding and space, to help an individual negotiate with minimum collateral damage to them, you and your business?

I’ve worked with colleagues grappling with messy divorces, custody battles and substance abuse, where the external stresses were temporary but having an impact on the team and their own performance. This requires delicate handling. You clearly have a responsibility to the team and the company but, managing with compassion and having a open door policy should be part of your armoury and both visible and reassuring to your team.

Be aware also that mental health issue affect 1 in 3 adults during their life. Stress is known to be a key factor behind poor mental health and historically it’s an issue that’s been handled very poorly by business and society more generally. Individuals feeling quite abandoned and unable to ask for help and yet, it having a traumatic impact on their lives and by extension, their work.

Thankfully this is starting to change. It’s become less intimidating for individuals to admit to their own mental health issues and within the start up community here in the UK, an arena that is generally unforgiving about displays of any ‘weakness’ or vulnerability (where “everything is going great with my start-up” until it isn’t) we have seen the emergence of organisations like Sanctus and the soon to launch My Blackdog showing great leadership in helping people to acknowledge and work through these issues.

With a team that is likely to be full of hard driven high achievers, your awareness of and skill in helping people negotiate these areas of potential vulnerability will enable you to become a better leader and one who embeds compassion at the heart of how you manage people.

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