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As Alan Willett has counselled executives over the years, he has become fascinated by the challenge of leading the unleadable. Every workplace has mavericks, cynics, divas and other difficult people. Those folks usually have strengths that even the bosses they rankle can acknowledge. Unfortunately, often they go too far, like the diva so concerned about his project he won't allow any tweaks.

"The unleadable have the good of the group in mind. The maverick wants to make the group better. But they step on toes and hurt morale. They need guidance to help them get others to get excited about the maverick's goals," the Ithaca, N.Y., consultant says in an interview.

Guidance is a manager's role. And it may be you have to guide them right out the door; indeed, one of the best features of his book, Leading the Unleadable, is the table he uses to help the executives he works with decide whether to remove or improve an individual. At the same time, he feels you should to "learn to love the challenge of transforming the troublesome to tremendous."

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That may start with working on yourself, changing your mindset. He stresses that if there's a problem with a staff member, it's your fault (even if it's not your fault). By that, he means you need to accept that you are managing the individual and any trouble is your responsibility to solve, even if you just became the boss a day or two ago.

He urges you to appreciate the diversity of every leaf. You need a range of people who look at things from different angles. As well, start with the belief that everyone has good intentions. The mavericks, cynics and divas aren't out to sink you; they just see another path to improving the organization.

Over the years, he has not found one person trying to hurt the leader or the group: "They were trying to help, but needed a translator to help them communicate their ideas and be effective."

If that sounds Pollyannaish, he stresses the importance of setting a high bar for excellence those people are expected to meet. That actually helps to prevent problems. They know what's acceptable and what's not. Treat trouble as information-rich data you can act on.

When weighing whether to remove or improve, use these six criteria he highlights:

  • The person’s ability to take feedback and improve.
  • Is the person well loved? (Sometimes such individuals have a huge following, sometimes a limited but fervent base of fans, and sometimes they are loathed by everyone.)
  • What are his or her collaboration skills?
  • How does the individual’s skills and experience fit with current needs?
  • How do those skills and experience fit with future needs?
  • If the person is removed, how difficult will it be to acquire the skills you need in the time frame it will take to hire?

Put those elements on a spreadsheet-like grid beside cells marked from minus two to plus two, the ratings you can assign for each criteria.

He says most of the time it will fairly quickly show you what you need to do as you study the score.

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The questions force you to consider the consequences. You probably don't want a schism if the troublesome person is ejected, and you could face that if they have many supporters. You don't want to lose skills that are important today, particularly if it will be difficult to replace the individual. "Sometimes you fill out the chart and see they are disruptive, but important," he says.

He also stresses you have a range of options for action:

  • You can wait to see if the situation corrects itself. This is rarely the best solution, he concedes, but should be carefully considered.
  • You can try to help the person correct the situation within the job he or she holds.
  • You could hire an external expert to help coach the individual.
  • There can be small modifications to the job to make it work better for everyone.
  • The person can be moved to a new position or new responsibility within the same project or team.
  • The individual can be moved to a different part of the organization – one where he or she can be more effective, not merely transferring trouble to get it off your shoulders.
  • The person can be removed from the organization.

With his chart, those options and the mindset he espouses, you can lead the unleadable more effectively.

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