Reader Question: Difficult People


Fire people who think they're entitled to run things – Jacksonville Business Journal:

The linked article and question were sent by a reader who asked, in part:

I discovered your blog and podcast a few months ago and have been following closely. I work in a company recently acquired by a company that's a few years into their lean journey and the parent company has been rolling Lean out in our business unit. I was selected for the implementation team, so I read and listen to everything about Lean that I can get my hands on. Yours is one of my primary resources.

I came across this article and its an issue we've been dealing with and it made me wonder how the “fix” would be handled in the Lean world. Is it something you could blog about?

I'm traveling back home today, so I'll leave the blog in your hands… what are your thoughts on this, from a change management perspective?

From the article:

Imagine you're a newly appointed project leader of an existing management team. How do you know if you're walking into a club of entrenched buddies who want to run the show and will sabotage your efforts? And what can you do about it?

I recently observed a team of a dozen managers with that dynamic. Harry was the newly appointed project leader. His two predecessors, also experienced leaders, had been unable to move the team forward. Both reported problems building team agreement and developing aligned effort.

Sitting in on a team meeting, I saw two people repeatedly cast furtive glances to a third, who signaled displeasure by frowning, eye rolling and head shaking. After each instance, the trio resisted the direction being taken by the rest of the group.

A little investigation on my part revealed the pattern. One person was the queen bee, supported by her attentive court. She thought she should run the whole team because she knew best.

Though she hadn't been able to convince her superiors, she knew the project was going in the wrong direction. In her mind, even worse than her lack of power, was the lack of appreciation to which she felt entitled. Since she knew what was right, she also felt justified in sabotaging everyone else's efforts.

All three of the managers sabotaging Harry were entrenched in the organization. They covered each other's backs. Anyone who disagreed or challenged them with facts was stabbed in the back.

Do you ever see similar patterns in your attempts to help an organization change, or in implementing Lean? What strategies do you use? I'm not sure if there's a “Lean answer” as much as there is a “working with people” answer — your thoughts??

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Most assuradly (sp) a working with people problem. Also a political problem. That “queen bee” is one I would engage on the side and size up and possibly have an off the record disscussion.

    If the behavior continued then I would find a way to bounce her and the whole show throwing crew (sabatoge comes from a French term meaning to throw a show into the machine to wreck it) off the team and possibly out of the company.

    Martin J Hickey
    Lean Six Sigma Engineer
    DSE Inc

  2. I would have a 1:1 with Queen Bee and ask for her input and then based on her feedback tell her there and then what the plan is going forward. Tell the team what the plan is and how it will benefit them again inviting feedback. Then… stick to your guns – circumnavigate those who don’t play ball. If people try to undermine your plans or persistently ‘drag their feet’ show them the door – you will only need to do that once.


    Lean Evangelist and Newbie

  3. Leadership problem in the company. Going with the assumption that the company makes an effort to engage employees (big assumption), if those who have agendas counter to the company’s mission are not dealt with, problems like this will continue and multiply.

    It has been my experience that people get put into “leadership” positions, meaning they are responsible for results, but have no authority to discipline or terminate (which could mean transferring out of the group, team, or department) troublesome employees.

    I would advise anybody in a no-win situation like this to plan an exit strategy.

  4. sometimes you lead a horse to water and just have to shoot it!

    That said, whilst I find that amusing, showing a person the door would be the last thing I undertook and I’d do it reluctantly.

    Though as one executive rightly said “change the people OR change the people”

    I am obviously trying to have it both ways. I think that my approach would be to collar the queen be and have the;

    “we have a problem” conversation that would go somewhat as follows.

    “we have a problem; this project is failing. Now I think that we need to do XXXXXXXX to move this forward. As I understand your position you think we need to do YYYYYY to move this forward. Now how are WE going to resolve this. I will let you consider this and perhaps we can meet tomorrow to discuss it rather than continue the conversation right now.”

    By having this conversation the issue has been acknowledged, harrys position made clear and harrys appreciation of the queen bees position made clear and a clear acknowledgement that it needs to be solved together.

    By walking away without attempting to resolve the possibility for an immediate confrontation has been avoided but a clear time to meet again to discuss it agreed upon. This time frame will allow the QB to reflect on the fact that harry acknowledges and appreciates her position and he has done this by repeating her position back to her so there can be no possible misunderstanding.

    Now if she in turn fails to start to become accommodating the “change the people or change the people” methodology MAY be required but in my experience this is rare in the extreme.

  5. It’s just a guess, but without additional information I’d say that this is a typical example of the lead responsibility for successful change being dumped on the project leader, rather than being kept by a senior exec (at an appropriate level).

    I’m pretty sure that the eye rolls and headshaking would either come to a halt or would be excised from the project team if a responsible senior exec were making his commitment to the change strongly and consistently known, along with a demonstrated willingness to back that up with management action, if needed.

    As is frequently the case, the problem lies upstream.

  6. I’m perplexed that anyone could provide meaningful advice given so little actual information.

    My first advice would be to quit trying to figure out the body language, and focus on getting the facts. And quit with the soap opera description of the situation, it appears riddled with personal bias.

    In my opinion there’s nothing here to go on (sorry to be harsh). Try posting some factual information, and we’ll try to help.


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