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5 Practical Steps for New Managers to Lead Difficult Team Members

Leading a new or existing team or even working towards a new team goal is an exhilarating journey, but it can also be filled with anxiety. This is particularly true if you find yourself leading individuals who were once your colleagues or if you encounter passive-aggressive team members who are resistant to change.

As a leader, you may find team members struggle to embrace your authority and the associated changes your leadership arrival brings. They may test you in various ways, such as demanding more of your time or displaying disrespect through subtle body language like turning away or rolling their eyes in meetings.

Ideally, your transition to leader was handled responsibly by your organisation (ie: a formal announcement of the changing of the guard). And you were then able to slowly establish your authority and leadership style in one-on-one's (where you worked towards supporting and understanding each team member, as well as enlisting them to support you). As well as in meetings, by ideally starting with a casual team planning session (where you introduced your aspirations and then worked with the team on the team purpose and new vision).

But say you are a few months into your new leadership role and you are noticing subtle signs of resistance. What do you do?

When faced with individuals who openly or subtly question your position or authority, it can shake our leadership to its core. It's critical to deal with any rumblings promptly and assertively.

Here are some key principles that can help facilitate a smoother transition to leading a new team:


It can be quite challenging not to take it personally when you notice signs of resistance to your leadership.

The good news is that it's not about you, it's about them. Human beings are a complex package of mixed emotions, past experiences and fears that are all based on their individual lived-in experiences. Where people resist, it speaks more about them and their fears, than it does about our leadership style.

In fact, it's more than likely you will receive resistance to your leadership at some point. The sooner you learn to handle it, the better for you and your career.

Take a moment to breathe deeply and let go of any self-pity or frustration that may arise from others not following your instructions or leadership. Remember, you have been put in charge of this team for a reason. Management believes in you. So shift your focus to finding a solution.

This could be around clearly communicating what behaviours you want to see or will not tolerate. It might also require setting clear boundaries (see step two). If you are not clear on what you need moving forward, then people will see that as a sign that you are not a strong leader.


2. Set clear boundaries or Expected Behaviours

Needy team members will demand a lot of your attention, so they can complain or test your allegiance to their fears. We often feely guilty that we have been promoted to being a leader, while our peers have stayed the same (the guilt can be particularly big, if they happen to be older than us or in the team for a longer time).

If you are a people-pleaser, you might find that you default to behaviours to ensure that your previous peers still like you.

When we become a leader to former team mates the relationship has to change. It cannot continue in its previous form. This means distancing yourself from gossip get-togethers, social drinking and the need for people to like you.

It also means setting clear boundaries to enable you to be more productive. For example, rather than allowing team members to constantly interrupt you, you might need to block time for questions, so you can do deeper work. This means clearly communicating your new expectations and firmly saying no to things that do not match your new priorities.

It means accepting that you will disappoint others, but being okay with that as you have other commitments and responsibilities. You have to stand your ground and not budge.

3. Don't over explain

A common mistake when we set new boundaries is that we feel that we need to justify our new ways of working. So we either apologise or check in with people to make sure they are okay to appease their bad moods.

Establishing boundaries is essential for self-advocacy and avoiding burnout caused by taking on excessive responsibilities or enabling poor behaviours.

When establishing new boundaries, it is crucial to communicate clearly and avoid the mistake of being indecisive in order to avoid conflict.


When a professional boundary has been crossed or behaviours that question our leadership, it’s important to address it immediately. 
This means making sure you are calm, so that you can have a respectful conversation.
If it means postponing a conversation until you are in a more positive and receptive mindset, do so. This will allow you to approach the situation with a coaching, listening, and explaining mindset.
Often, this requires not just letting people know when they have violated a boundary, but also that their action is not okay with you. This is not the time to be fluffy or dance around the issue. 
Share your observations and experiences in a calm and objective manner, refraining from placing blame. Your goal is to provide factual information. 

For instance, if you come across a team member who is passively resisting your leadership, it is essential to address the issue promptly. Passive-aggressive behaviours often arise when employees lack the courage to confront you directly. Instead, they display disrespect through avoiding eye contact with you, sighing loudly or having side conversations during meetings.

As Liane Davey, says in her book, The Good Fight, it is advisable to respond subtly, like sitting beside or across from the person in the next meeting or standing behind them during a conversation. If the resistance persists, it is crucial to provide direct feedback in a one-on-one conversation. 

You might say, "In the past few meetings, I've noticed that you have been sitting at the back of the room and only giving short responses to my questions. I'm concerned that you're not fully embracing my leadership. What are you willing to do differently to show that you're on board?"

It is crucial to be prepared to address violations with confidence and assertiveness. Failing to address these violations can result in harbouring resentment, increased conflict and compromising your overall well-being.



When you do pull people up for poor behaviour, you need to provide the space for your team member to share their perspective. 
For example, say you have a team member who keeps escalating issues to your boss or who refuses to go along with your decisions. In this situation, it is important to address the issue directly and calmly. You could say something like, "I've noticed that you are challenging my decisions, and it seems to be influencing others to do the same. I'm genuinely curious, what is going on for you? How can we work together to get things back on track?" By approaching the situation with understanding and a desire for resolution, you can foster open communication and find a way forward.
Empathy goes beyond merely listening to words. It involves perceiving things beyond the surface and understanding the deeper meaning that lies within. This means giving people the opportunity to express their fears around change. When people feel heard, they are more likely to respond more positively to the situation. This doesn't mean you have to agree with what they say, but reflecting back your understanding of how they feel, will make them feel more comfortable.

If they have identified any actions on your part that may have contributed to the resistance, it is important to take responsibility for them (if it is legitimate).

Leverage one-on-one's and team meetings to discuss themes and ground rules with other team members. Explain how you expect people to behave and that if they have concerns to address these directly with you moving forward.

If you find that you are getting rattled by others questioning your leadership style, it's wise to seek support. This could be a coach, a mentor or a supportive community of team leaders who come together to share best practices.

Your organisation has placed their trust in you by appointing you as the leader of your team. It is now your responsibility to earn and maintain that trust by striking the perfect balance between humility, listening, learning, and serving your team, while also having the courage to assert your leadership when necessary.

Get this right and you increase the potential of turning difficult team members into your staunchest allies. While valuable team members will naturally adapt to your leadership style, those who are unable or unwilling to do so highlight that they need to seek opportunities elsewhere where they can contribute more effectively.

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