How to deal with difficult team members: a 5-steps process for team success

How to deal with difficult team members: a 5-steps process for team success

We have all been there. With multidisciplinary teams, often big, very few (or none) direct reporting lines, delivering efficiency in product management is difficult.

A particular challenge are difficult team members. It is not unusual, you have someone who is clearly very talented in an aspect of the job, but very difficult to deal with, either because of his character or lack in other skills. The right solution is not  getting rid of the person, but learning how to work together in an optimal way.

Over the years I have developed a standard 5-steps process that I will try to describe here. It has worked multiple times, but it requires discipline, patience and dedication. It really helps if you naturally possess people skills, but can you really be an effective product manager if you don’t?

1. Understand their values.

Every person has a ranking of values that I call their value inventory. This is very diverse and it is connected to the different personality types. Most people do not rationally take a personal inventory. Consider it a set of feelings and beliefs that guide personal actions.

In an ideal world one defines and configures his own life ensuring all his values are met and fulfilled. Coming to terms with reality, what everyone of us does is working hard to have their top values in order, while accepting that some others will be kept in the background or ignored.

There is another phenomenon that is strange in many ways. Many people, accepting their inability to control their life compatibly with their value inventory, change their inventory instead. Ever tried to convince yourself about something that didn’t seem quite right in the first place? How many people valuing their freedom very highly end up with a “suffocating” partner?

Coming back to the general concept, if life is not aligned with the value inventory happiness is out of reach. Consciously or unconsciously, it makes no difference.

The value inventory is very intimate and not many people are willing to share it openly (some are though!). However it is not difficult to understand someone else’s top values.

  • What takes them out of bed in the morning?
  • What are they interested in?
  • What makes them happy?
  • What frustrates them?
  • What do they really hate?

With a bit of interpersonal skills these things become evident very quickly, however it could be as easy as asking!

2. Get trust.

After you have understood something of the person’s inventory it’s time to share yours. You need to be smart here and focus a lot on the common values. It can be challenging to apply the right strategy if the other person has a strong emotional intelligence as he/she would certainly understand your value inventory more quickly than you can understand his/hers. However it does not really matter as finding common values will bring you a long way! Everyone likes to share common views and opinions. In a short time you can develop that feeling of “being on the same side”.

Sometimes a trick is using value misalignment with a given situation. Identifying something that clashes against a common value (there is always something at work that you don’t like!) and spending some time openly discussing that can help. Measure is the key here, investing too much energy in negativity is never good.

3. Identify the other person weaknesses

We all have strengths and weaknesses. Ensure you understand very well what the other person is good at and what he/she is bad at. If you are lucky there will be something the person is very bad at that is a strength for yourself!

All you have to do at this point is a simple trade. Offer your strengths in exchange for your colleague’s. Selling the idea can be the tricky part, but a bit of commercial skills will go a long way. Being honest and direct is usually simple and works most of the time.

4. Deliver before asking

Do something for the person. You will have your chance. Help with a problem, support a situation, do something concrete. If you have understood the values and strenghts/weaknesses it will not be difficult. Just find something you are better at than him/her. You need to be altruistic here. Besides what your long term objectives are, you need to put yourself in an altruistic mind set.

So do not ask anything in return. Chances are your investment will pay off with interest quite quickly, but do not expect it. This is very important.

5. Set the other person up for success

Once you have done all that, there will be a growing underlying trust, a sense of reciprocal understanding, the awareness of how you can be useful to each other. You will instinctively start to like each other even if you are far from being friends.

Only at this point you can start discussing about each other’s role in the team and how you can deliver value through the right strategy. What you need to be able to do is setting up the person for success. Everyone deserves the chance to apply his/her strengths and be supported with his/her weaknesses. This is what each manager should do in the first place even if not many seem to be able to do it consistently.


A good product manager must be able to negotiate that position, putting his/her skills at disposal of all the other members of the team. It is in the interest of the team after all.

In science and technology businesses technically strong team members with poor communication skills are not rare. Bad communication in the team is a disaster in the making. Sooner or later big problems will arise. An easy set up is something like this: “you ensure I understand what you mean and what you want to do, I will do the communication enabling you to just focus on the action. This way, you do what you really want to do, I get the job done and the communication is properly delivered.” Win-win.

I have done that so many times! It works!

Ensuring the right equilibrium in the team is established and maintained is key to success. Sorting out these situations will be a massive step forward and will ultimately set yourself up for success. Product managers should enable others to be successful to be successful themselves!

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