Dear Plucky: Leader of the Pack

dog pack

Dear Plucky,

I’m managing a new team, and they’re not exactly getting along well. We’ve had some tense meetings lately with lots of passive aggressive remarks. How can I help them trust each other and communicate better together? They’re all pretty different and don’t have a lot in common. I’m worried that we won’t be successful if we don’t fix these issues.

Leader of the Pack

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Dear Leader of the Pack,

Have you ever seen that show called “The Dog Whisperer”? It featured a guy, Cesar Millan, who would show up at a client’s house and turn their snarling, ferocious dog who peed incessantly on the floor into a docile, well-behaved pooch by the end of the episode. I’ve never owned a dog but I loved catching the show every so often. It was a little like watching magic.

Some episodes featured families who owned 2 or 3 dogs. In those cases, Cesar would work with the pack (his word) to establish rank and bring peace to the dynamic. Your question reminded me of these episodes. (Don’t tell your team members we’re comparing them to canines! Ha!)

What you are worried about is group dynamics – and specifically, the relationships between the members of a given group. I’ve been there. Leading a group of mixed skillsets, differing years of experience and various personalities can feel dicey on the good days – and nearly impossible on the bad ones.

Cesar would start by establishing a “pack leader.” That’s you, leader person! It has to be. A “pack leader” is someone whose energy sets the tone and dynamic for the group. Often in our organizations, “pack leaders” are chosen for us. We join a new company and we’re told who we report to. Sometimes that “pack leader” has earned the trust and respect to lead… and other times they are merely “pack leader” by name, lacking the confidence, self-discipline and courage to naturally attract team members to their vision and leadership.

The first thing I would ask is how you feel about leading this particular pack. Your energy matters most. Do you provide a safe environment for team members? Are your employees empowered, productive and motivated? These qualities fall to your guidance and leadership. If you’re not feeling great about the tone you’re setting on the team, you’ve got to come in tomorrow with a new energy and see what happens.

But sometimes you’re doing everything right. You’re showing up with a healthy and supportive energy, yet the members of your team seem to hold tension or resentment with each other. In this case, we look to Cesar yet again.

Cesar’s philosophy starts with the idea that all dogs need enough exercise. If they aren’t burning off steam, they end up bored with pent-up energy. Are your employees underallocated? Is there a fear that there’s not enough work to go around? (This can lead to mega-competition vibes…) Or is it also possible they’re playing out of role, asked to do tasks or jobs that don’t play to their strengths? This leads to another kind of boredom, feeling undervalued and overlooked, which often sends them to the doorstep of another welcoming employer.

If you’re leading with the right energy and your team members genuinely have enough of the right work, then the only thing left is personal stuff. Maybe one team member is triggered by the personality or attitude of her colleague. Someone’s humor or sarcasm comes off the wrong way. The client is playing favorites and pitting them against each other. In all of these cases, the solution I’d propose is a long walk with you – their leader.

Giving someone the space and time to share how they’re feeling is one of the most generous things you can do as a manager. Take your most troublesome one of the bunch out for a walk to grab a coffee; ask how work is going lately. Mention that you’ve noticed some tension between the group members – have they noticed too? What do they attribute it to? Participate in this conversation, using it as an opportunity to reinforce healthy team dynamics and patience. Play out scenarios in which they confront (however gently) the person who has got them riled up… help them see that they’re fully capable of giving and receiving feedback. Because with your guidance and support, they are.

Lately I’ve been talking with leaders who are pretty burned out themselves. They don’t have a spare minute or dollar to put towards employee satisfaction and this stresses them out. In those cases, I give this simple advice: increase the amount of times each day that you say “thank you.” It costs you nothing and takes no time at all. Thank the employee for her upbeat tone in the meeting. Thank the teammate who stayed late to finish – or who rallied the team to do so. It’s a tiny way to create meaningful change and cultivate a culture of gratitude… this matters more than you think.

So care for your pack. Lead them, get them some fresh air and make sure they’re fully allocated. Then see how feeling accomplished and fulfilled in their job changes the success of the group. Because when an employee is challenged, motivated and fulfilled? There’s truly not much else for them to complain about.

Good luck out there,

Jen

Do you need some work advice? Send questions for an upcoming Dear Plucky column to: dearplucky@beplucky.com. Thanks!