When a team member shuts down

Another Sunday morning, coming downstairs to make coffee. We have really put our coffeemaker through the ringer lately as we have been making pot after pot of coffee. Like so many things lately, it is a change for Mr. Coffee. He is normally used to just a few pots as I normally take one cup with me and have other cups at the office. Of course, that is not the case now.

We made one pot last Sunday and then he refused to make any more. He either went on strike or just gave up. Either way, no more coffee for us. Thank goodness, even though we are shelter in place, we can run out and buy a new Mr. Coffee fairly easily.

This got me thinking about what do we do when a team member “gives up”? I am certainly not advocating that we simply go get another team member. But, there are things we can do to help those who shut down.

During the financial crisis of 2008, there was an abundance of stress and lay-offs. I was faced with a team member who didn’t want to contribute. He was skating by, refused to share updates at team meetings and just said he was “busy”. He had completely shut down, which was a huge change for him.

I didn’t know what to do. I had been managing for several years but had never encountered someone who wasn’t achieving and, who appeared to me, to be borderline insubordinate. I tried a few failed tactics and then went to HR to deal with the “problem”. Looking back, I would have handled it differently especially given the stressful times we were living in.

  1. Discover the reason for the change. As personal as it may be, try and find out the reason behind the change in behavior. More than likely, it has nothing to do with work. In my past situation, I learned that he was going through a personal loss and chose to take out his grief and anger at work. Anger over loss comes out somehow. Some people internalize; some people explode; others may re-direct it onto a person close to them. We see this in our personal lives and work relationships are not exempt.
  2. Find someone else to talk to. If you are not comfortable asking delicate questions, which many managers are not, ensure your team members have someone else to talk to – a mentor, coach, counselor or peer. As a manager, find someone to confide in and ask for help. This can be another manager you trust and admire. I sought zero advice from anyone. I thought I could handle it. Remember: Just because a team member isn’t comfortable going to you about something personal, doesn’t make you a bad manager!
  3. Resist the urge to get “micro”. I was tempted to micro-manage his projects to ensure he was working. In fact, I took this road for a while. That made it worse. What I should have done was be specific in projects and assignments and ask for weekly updates but not jump in and manage for him.
  4. Develop and practice emotional intelligence. It may sound too academic, however, I am a firm believer in taking an EI class and living the concepts. Some of us cannot compartmentalize or create boundaries when we should. Having training on recognizing and dealing with emotions is critical to being successful in the workplace. In hindsight, I should have asked the team to engage in this learning opportunity as the entire team was affected by his behavior (as I learned later). This is the top skill I nurture in teams now as I believe it can save lots of angst and help with conflict.
  5. Pursue formal action only as a last resort. It is easy to fall into the trap of dealing with this person as a discipline situation, and, sometimes, that is the direction you need to go. For me, that should always be a last resort after trying to ask questions, steer them to someone else, lead them to other resources outside of the company and engage others in the situation.

I went down the disciplinary path first and it got very adversarial. As a more experienced manager, I exhaust all of my options first and it has made a huge difference.

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