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I am a manager in a software company managing about 30 people across multiple teams. I have 3 team leads in each section reporting to me.

One of the team leads — lets call her Linda — is a very capable and hard-working worker, but she is extremely sensitive and can be very manipulative. She has been with the company for a while, since there were only few people in my department; therefore, she knows the history and is used to working in her own way. Over the past few years the company has doubled its size and is going through a change; before there were only a few projects, but we are now working on dozens of projects and starting to struggle meeting the deadlines, and things are slipping.

My managers are obviously asking me to get things under control and initiate new ways to manage projects more efficiently, as we are in constant fire-fighting mode and can’t keep up with the requests. Almost every single project she is managing is delayed and there is no way for me to plan ahead; I can only see what’s happening this week and maybe next week.

I have started small and initiated some change, but for almost all of the change I have to fight with Linda to get her to accept the change, and these are not even major things. For every new idea to improve planning and delivery I get an objection such as “we have always been working like this, what’s the point of this new tool, why do we have to fill in these tools, I’d rather get on with my work, etc.” And when the tool is in place, she is not using it effectively and manipulating people in her team to undermine the tool. As a team lead I expect her to initiate use of these new tools, but she is quite happy with the status quo. Saying “if you don’t like this tool, can you please recommend me one you like, or tell me how do you think we can improve things here” didn’t work because she doesn’t believe there is problem — but at the same time she is constantly complaining that there is too much to be done.

Another main issue is that she believes everyone else in the other teams and departments are lazy and incompetent, and she is constantly criticising them. According to her, only her team is functioning, and everyone else is just plain useless.

I have talked with her several times and asked her to change her attitude but so far, not even once has she admitted she is wrong! She even once told me “I know I am 99% right, so why should I change”? And these talks are usually followed by moody periods in which she ceases verbal communication and it becomes really difficult for me to understand what’s going on with the projects and people in her team.

Another issue is that if she asks something and it’s not possible (such as pay-rise, promotion, training etc...) she explodes, and then stonewalling / silent treatment starts.

Recently I started to think I am fighting a losing battle. It looks like she is never going to change, and will keep poisoning people in her team as well, so I decided to have a one last talk with her to outline the issues, and really need to make her believe that her behaviour is unacceptable and if she does not change I am going to escalate things to HR.

I also believe if she changes she can be a really valuable member of the team but her attitude is ruining everything. I have already talked to her about the things I mentioned above and really tried several times. I am looking for new ideas here to make her believe that her behaviour is not acceptable anymore, and she needs to change her attitude. What should I tell her, or how can I demonstrate things are serious this time? Or do you think this is pointless and there is no need to try and I should just escalate it?

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    “Almost every single project she is managing is delayed” - this is surely the most important point here, and the point to focus on with her. Choice of tooling can be subjective, but delayed projects are an unarguable sign that things aren’t working. – Joe Stevens Nov 30 '19 at 5:02
  • Agree with the comment above. Real problem is delayed projects which should be focussed on and not the change in tools. – PagMax Nov 30 '19 at 7:25
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    I'm curious. Does she get to set her own deadlines? Or you set it for her team? Also, which new tools are we talking about here? – Stephan Branczyk Nov 30 '19 at 7:41
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    She sets the deadlines, and most of the time she takes ages doing that because of the unplanned work she has to do, so not much time left for the planning, so she just uses a best guess. We are trying to change that by using a project management tool (MS Project, Smartsheet etc..) but she thinks those tools are a waste of time. – John Nov 30 '19 at 10:16
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    What is the size of your deliverables? Or with other words, how much time is there between on deadline and the next? – Helena Nov 30 '19 at 15:41
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I think you're starting to handle it correctly. It's not a question of 'we'd like to change', it's more; 'the company is changing. Are you coming along?'. HR need to be involved at this point, as it sounds like a PIP is in order.

In the end it may be that Linda has to find a new position elsewhere. The only benefit I see here is that she has historical knowledge of the systems; that's actually not as much of a benefit as it sounds - any competent developer or systems person can pick up the pieces if needed.

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I feel before moving onto the action in PeteCon's good answer, as you have already decided to have one last talk with her, you should make that talk very direct.

This is how things are now. If you do not adopt then unfortunately we have to look at replacing you. Linda has to be clear that this is not open to negotiation now and things have got serious.

I would add compliance to all new process and promotion of the process amoungst junior team under her direction, as a part of her performance goals. Perhaps knowing how this would affects her performance and thus raises, stock, bonus, etc. she may be more open to the idea to try and follow.

these talks are usually followed by moody periods in which she ceases the verbal communication and it becomes really difficult for me to understand what’s going on with the projects and people in her team.

This also needs to be covered. This implies that she is not qualified to lead a team. Inform her that such behavior would lead to a demotion to a non leadership position.

End on a positive note, showing the value of her work, how you personally want to keep her as she is a valuable part of the team, etc.

If she does not comply after such a discussion, then I doubt she really wants the work.

  • I second every single word in this answer. To the letter. – O.F. Dec 1 '19 at 11:15
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If a team is regularly delivering late, there are two obvious possible causes: Either they are given more work than they can reasonably deliver. Or they are not very good at their job / not working hard enough.

There is a not so obvious reason: They are not well organised, and while working hard, they are wasting time due to bad organisation. That can happen especially if they are behind with their work anyway and get stressed out or go into a panic mode where they achieve a lot less than they could. You say you are constantly "in fire fighting mode". That can obvisouly lead to inefficiencies, because people start one job, then they are interrupted with something that is suddenly higher priority, which is then interrupted by something even higher priority.

I think you should make clear to this person that they are not delivering what people expect from them, whether that expectation is right or wrong, and what you are trying to do is (1) figure out if they have more work to do than they can achieve, and (2) figure out if they do work in an inefficient way. The other thing that you should make clear is that if you can't plan more than two weeks ahead, that's a problem for you and if she doesn't help you solving that problem then she is your problem.

And admit immediately that this is extra work, and that will be taken into account.

And quite obviously she doesn't like the kind of work you want her to do. In that case find someone on her team who likes it. In a team of say five, there will be someone who enjoys planning, using all the planning tools and so on.

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It sounds like you're trying to get Linda and her team to use some kind of project tracking tools?

If you're a PM, you might find this hard to believe, but many pros think PM tools are a colossal waste of time. They have a point, to be honest. This person and their team is probably working hard with limited resources. They probably need more equipment, time, or people and have communicated that. The response they got, it appears, is an attempt to more closely surveil their work. In the short term, that piles even more work onto them and that extra work doesn't materially help them succeed.

The best thing you can do is to make it easy to use the tool, demo it, offer training, explain exactly how it will make things better. And no, merely providing a "dashboard" for high-level management is not a valid reason. Perhaps there is some kind of trade-off you can negotiate? Fo example, offer them something they need in exchange for their agreement to use the tool. You could also offer to customize their interface for the tool so that it meets their needs or makes it less onerous to use.

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I think PeteCon has a good point with "The company is changing, are you coming along" - this is a growing pain that longtime employees have to go through when a company is growing up. However, I don't think that's the whole of the story. You say she's a competent employee and yet she's resisting your changes. You haven't managed to convince her of the need for them. And perhaps rightly so; as teego1967 points out, many professionals of the "I'm doing actual work, not talking about people doing work" variety dislike them. PM tools are often airdropped out of the box with poor configuration, lots of irrelevant required fields and so forth. Just requiring a tool isn't going to solve your problems. You need to investigate.

She isn't convinced that using your tool is useful. So don't say to her "you need to use this tool", say "my problem is that I can't plan ahead when I don't know what your team will or won't accomplish" and ask her to come up with a solution to that problem. Give her some free rein to come up with unexpected solutions; after all, she's smart and experienced. Ask her, what does she need to start giving good estimates?

Perhaps after she's thought a while about how to solve your planning problem she'll propose a tool - not necessarily the one you had in mind. Or she'll tell you why the team is not managing to give good estimates.

Perhaps they keep getting tossed urgent little jobs from elsewhere in the company, and that needs to stop? In the comments to your question you say she sets her deadlines, but they don't work because she has so much unplanned work. Where is this unplanned work coming from? Maybe you as a manager need to stop other departments from interfering with the team.

Another issue is that if she asks something and it’s not possible (such as pay-rise, promotion, training etc...) she explodes and stonewalling / silence treatment starts.

It's not professional of her, but maybe she's frustrated because 1) she can't meet deadlines under current circumstances and 2) without meeting deadlines she has no leverage to get any of these things that she needs to motivate and improve her team. She feels like she's trapped in a vicious circle.

To escape you need to help her:

  • Tell her what goals you want her to accomplish to earn the rewards, and if she does, make sure she gets them.
  • Ask her what she needs to be able to accomplish those goals. Make sure they're achievable.
  • At first, the goal should be to make the team meet deadlines. Since currently for some reason the team isn't fast enough, deadlines will have to be scaled back. She's going to need cover from you to do that.
  • Right now, the goal needs to be that the team manages to consistently deliver on (pessimistic/realistic) deadlines.
  • Once that's accomplished, and rewarded, the next goal is to increase productivity. This requires another look at how the team is working; what is holding them back from being more productive?
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Resisting your leadership, and the company's morphosis into an enterprise? undermining your decisions by poisoning her own crew against your ideas? Thinks she is "right 99% of the time"? "Why should I change?!"? Going into childish stonewalling/silence-treatments after every talk (implying there were at least several such talks)?

I'd say you have gone "above and beyond the call of duty" trying to accommodate what seems, all in all, a childish, petulant employee that rose to the ranks simply by being there long enough.

Like Chris said in another answer, summon her for one last, very direct, conversation, state very clearly that she needs to grow up, instantly, comply with company hierarchy and processes, adapt to the changes or else...

Timebox the change to no more than one sprint. Yes, you read me right, one, 1, sprint.

Either she smartens up, or... not, and then she will have to face the music.

Everything either evolves or dies off.
Your company seems to be evolving.
She seems to be a setback.
There's only two ways moving forward: with her in tow with the rest of the company or without her.

She should be very grateful you're leaving the choice to her, and that you've endured her so far.
I can tell you for personal experience, most other managers wouldn't have.

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