One of my early articles was on Leading Those Who Would Undermine Your Leadership. The main point was that, looking back on their careers, the number one thing experienced leaders regret is not moving faster on people. Even so, many leaders are reluctant to make early people moves for fear of upsetting the apple cart. But upsetting the apple cart is better than letting rot spread from apple to apple. Do three things:

  1. Identify potential underminers.
  2. Invite them to join in the change and give them support, encouragement and time to sign up.
  3. Move them off the team if they don’t want to be a part of it.

Identify Potential Underminers

Those who have the potential to undermine your leadership generally perceive a threat to their values, or institutional, personal or resource-based power. As you change things, look for them to defend their turf.

Institutional power is based on formal position and reporting lines (who manages whom). This is generally hierarchical and often monarchical.

People with this power tend to be comfortable with the status quo and reluctant to embrace any change.

Personal power is based on relationships, persuasiveness and expertise.

People with this power will resist changes with negative consequences for those with which they have strong relationships, changes that diminish their ability to persuade (like moves to data-based decision making), or changes that move the focus away from their area of expertise (or towards areas in which they are relatively weaker).

Resource-based power comes from control of information/knowledge, funding and people (both formal and informal), either in general or as it relates to one specific task.

People with this power may resist changes in the way any of these resource decisions are made.

Invite Them to Join In

It’s very hard for an employee who is comfortable with the status quo, a “detractor,” to get behind your vision. The best you can reasonably hope for is that they will become a passive member of the silent majority, or a “watcher.”

A key distinction here is that we are dealing with potential underminers, or detractors, and in order to keep them from becoming actual underminers leaders have to give them the opportunity to contribute.

Make the invitation explicit. Lay out the direction you intend to go and ask for their help. Then, make it as easy as possible for them to follow you. Assume positive intent. Give them the resources and support you can. Help them help the team.

Move Them Off the Team if They Want

If you have potential underminer, give them eight weeks to opt in, providing them your full support along the way. The hope is that at some point before week eight they will proactively tell you something like, “I had my doubts/was concerned/was surprised in the beginning. But I get it now. I see where you’re leading us and I want to be a part of it.”

If they do, if they want to do the job you need them to do, the way you need them to do it, great.

If they don’t, move them off the team. This doesn’t necessarily mean firing them. You could move them to another team in your organization. You could find some other creative way to make sure they can’t hurt you and the team. But, if they don’t opt in by week eight, the odds are high they will try to hurt you and the team. So, move them.

Current Best Thinking

In general, these ideas are still valid. However, the rise in remote work has made it much easier for detractors or underminers to hide. There is an absolute limit to the level of relationship you can build with someone with just written, audio and even video communication. Without being in the same physical space, feeling, smelling and tasting the same things, something’s missing.

Given this, invest more time in getting to know people personally. Make the trip. Invite them to make the trip to meet live, in-person. Be especially careful of people who were detractors and appear to have changed. Maybe they did. But maybe they’re dormant and will come back to bite you later. If and when they do, move them out swiftly.

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