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I have been hired as a Technical Director for a team of 12 members. They are all very close friends, and as the owner of the business is managing them remotely, they have a very low productivity and delay in submitting their tasks, and that is why the owner hired me (to manage this slack at work).

The top 3 of the team are seniors, and they didn't like this change and new management style, and thus they are trying heavily to break the deadlines by taking leave in groups (all of those 3 developers together) and insist on it (claiming that it is an emergency case for this leave!)

I don't think it is a wise decision to take an aggressive action against those three developers. Any idea how I could break such attitude and how to deal with such a case?

  • What's the actual issue you want an answer to? Getting senior employees to adjust to a new (or simply "a") management style? Or how to deal with this specific instance of all 3 requesting leave at the same time? Surely if you are managing them you can just say that you can't approve their leave request, provided it would really be hardship, and that's the end of it? – Lilienthal Apr 19 '17 at 14:10
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    At this point, I would assume the OP has a clear understanding from the owner as to what the expectations of his role are @JoeStrazzere If not the OP has already most likely lost the battle. – Mister Positive Apr 19 '17 at 14:15
  • @JoeStrazzere I have never seen the title Technical Director that did not come with this ability, but your right in this case he may or may not. – Mister Positive Apr 19 '17 at 14:24
  • Seeing the answers here I feel there is a strong cultural clash to my background. It seems their actions are perceive very aggressive, but to me it seems rather harmless. Don't employees in your jurisdiction (I assume US) also need permission from the employer when requesting time off. Even if they insist I would guess a simple "No" would suffice. Of course they might be grumpy because of this, but this is another issue altogether. I don't see all the fuzz about sabotaging and firing people. – Reinstate Monica - dirkk Apr 19 '17 at 14:48
  • Anecdotal: I have been in this situation (in the level below senior developers protesting in a passive-aggressive way against change by the new manager). I would have actually liked for the manager to take a more aggressive stance against the behavior of the seniors. – pmf Apr 21 '17 at 12:30
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+250

This power struggle can end in only 2 ways - a) you quit or are fired, or b) you establish control over the team. Sadly, I do not believe a middle ground exists in this situation.

Step one is to meet with the owner of the business and see how far he's willing to go to solve the problem. Hiring you was a good first step, but if you decide to fire one or more of the 3, will he back it?

If the owner will back you up:

Pick any one of the three and begin the usual "non performing employee" process - give your instructions in writing, with hard deadlines. Document all interactions and make it clear that this employee is not meeting your expectations for his pay grade. Call out the specific acts and document them. Make it clear that either the misbehavior goes, or he goes. Follow company processes to the letter, but don't offer 2nd chances. Be prepared to fire him - it might come to that. Be absolutely clear that you mean business, you're not joking, and it's not personal.

If the others try to stick up for him, treat them the same way. Give all of them a clearly documented path to recover from this, but the misbehavior is their problem to solve.

If the owner will not back you up 100%:

Get out of there. Once you lose the power struggle you'll be completely ineffective and very unhappy.

  • Actually, getting out seems to be the only solution that will at least save OPs sanity. Get out, give the owner a detailed report of the events and tell him he needs to find new employees. This gives the owner time to bring in people which are not in the clique without being unable to run his business because all employees left in a revolt. – skymningen Apr 19 '17 at 14:11
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    @skymningen - it's possible the OP was brought in to do exactly that - clean up the mess and find new employees. It's not unusual for the owner of the company to be technically unqualified to hire senior development staff. – Dan Pichelman Apr 19 '17 at 14:12
  • I think a positive chance could occur gradually with the right tools, procedures, and methodologies in place. – Mister Positive Apr 19 '17 at 14:14
  • It's possible, yes. But there was no mention of the option to hire new people in the original question. And I would guess, the OP hiring new people will also end in a bad time for both him and them against the settled clique. – skymningen Apr 19 '17 at 14:15
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    @MisterPositive - I hope you're right. With all questions we're forced to read between the lines a bit, and I think you and I are reading them differently. I see extremely juvenile playground bully behavior that has, in my experience, completely destroyed a manager's ability to be effective if left unchecked. Perhaps the situation isn't that dire and a less confrontational approach is best. Only the OP knows for sure. – Dan Pichelman Apr 19 '17 at 14:18
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I like the Dan Pichelman answer, but it leaves a perspective out.

  1. Work through a PIP with the under-performing people with the expectation to fire should they not improve as Dan Pichelman articulated.
  2. Abandon ship and find somewhere else before it turns on your head as also mentioned.

I think this answer is the best one though:

  1. Meet with the owner and let him know you plan to individual pursue performance improvement on a case by case bases with him and want to keep him in the loop so he understands the unique situation for each employee. Then correspond with each individual while BCC'ing the owner. Be firm and professional indicating the need for performance from them. Forward all responses from them to the Owner as well. The owner might request it in 1 info instead of separate emails, then you can compile all written communication into a digest with a summary that you submit on each employee at a regular interval.

If this is a small company with a friend like environment you will need to let the owner see the attitude of the ones that are not wanting to cooperate. This will allow the owner to become upset legitimately with the attitudes and performance with his close knit crew and possibly want to take action. It's his money and his company, if he wants to keep his crew then he will need to motivate and your position is to get technical excellence and indicate where the excellence is not present and why. Being a small company I would keep him 100% in the loop on each situation and get his decision. This will build respect and trust in your relationship with him while at the same time ensuring that no one can go behind your back as you are being fully disclosing to him. This also avoids the perspective that you can't get his people to work better, but just want to gut his company.

Interpersonal relationship building is the "best" way, even though it's admittedly much harder to do.

  • I like this answer. I would comment however that these discussions you point out in number 3 should have been had before the OP took the position IMHO. – Mister Positive Apr 25 '17 at 10:51
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    Maybe so, but everything doesn't always work out perfectly. I think if they had this might not be a question here... – mutt Apr 25 '17 at 15:33
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I would start by taking the open, honest, direct approach. Take the 3 senior developers and tell them the truth. That management wants to improve the efficiency and that you want to work together with them to find ways to do that. Make them feel you are on the same boat with them and that you succeed or fail together. Try presenting things an a positive way and show them the benefits of doing better. Think out of the box and find ways to motivate them to be more efficient. One way would be to get management offer benefits to top performers.

If this approach doesn’t work, I would try to break the group resistance by divide and conquer. Try finding the least resistant of the group and get him/her closer to you. If you have someone that is leading the resistance, break the group by firing him if needed.

The most important thing in this situation is to make sure management has got you back, and that the developers know that.

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I think there's some perception of immunity. They can obviously do whatever they want in unison and receive little or no backlash, that's at the heart of things here. If they all up and leave the company goes up in flames, they're that important. At least they think they are. But I don't think making it about punishing people is the right way to go when you're the new brass.

There are some do's and dont's here, for me:

  • Do implement controls that prevent blatantly harmful actions by employees. They aren't there to make people mad, they're there to ensure a small group of employees can't scuttle entire projects maliciously.

  • Don't radically flip the previous organization on it's head and create an environment where the new paradigm is: "you were doing it all wrong before I got here." They helped build that! Don't make them think they wasted their time. Be sure to take an approach where everyone is on board with you, changes are transparent, and they continue to feel like they're actively involved in building the company.

Controls

The first control seems to be an attendance, vacation and leave policy (the way you worded it, at least, makes me think there either isn't one, or it's not enforced). Employees should know that they're held to a standard of attendance, but they should also know that there's a limit to the number of call-outs, vacation/sick days and bereavement days, that must also in part be substantiated. A sample bereavement policy. Please note that key points in the linked sample are that supervision must approve time off, and exceptions exist for staffing requirements. You should work closely with the owner and potentially an HR consultant on such policies and implement them as going forward, without penalizing any current or past action.

But let's visit staffing requirements for a moment. Now there have to be some company or organizational goals in place. For a private company it's less obvious, but for any publicly traded company the failure to meet critical path goals is plainly visible to shareholders, and can negatively impact the company in many ways. As personal or departmental goals need to coincide with the timely completion of organization goals, typically projects have deadlines and a reporting structure.

Tying back into attendance and leave, it needs to be clear that everyone is responsible for meeting your organizational goals regardless of their personal assignment. This means pulling people from other tasks when a deadline is in danger of not being met. Employees will very quickly get sick of having to work harder because certain people keep taking time off, when you pull them to work on Project B and they're responsible for Project A's deadline. I'd also implement a regular report or dashboard so that tasks which tie into a deadline are monitored. This not only makes what needs to be done transparent via feedback, but creates accountability for what isn't getting done.

If your company issues an annual bonus, let them know missing deadlines hurts that, and their bonuses depend on the percent of goals met. That's a number that they can directly impact. Make sure the owner is on board here.

My biggest stress here is don't go crazy pushing a management style because that's more about people and politics many times. Rather, I think it's worthwhile to control the environment.

  • If you pull people off project A to work on project B, they will almost immediately lose any sense of responsibility towards the deadline of Project A, unless you adjust that deadline appropriately (which negates the expected benefit and just turns into an annoyance for everyone involved). People don't feel much responsibility towards deadlines if outside forces manipulate the capacity for or scope of the projects involved. – Erik Apr 25 '17 at 13:51
  • @Erik Outside forces are always manipulating the projects. The issue is the critical path goals don't wait for you to work out your sentiment toward deadline A or B: they're always there. This is precisely why it can get so hectic when 3/12 employees aren't pulling their weight. – CKM Apr 25 '17 at 15:51
  • There's a difference between forces outside the company, and the very people who gave you the deadline and the instructions to work on a project. If my manager decides to make me responsible for a project, and then forces me off the project without adjusting the deadline, he shouldn't expect me to maintain much of any level of motivation towards the work. – Erik Apr 25 '17 at 17:26
  • @Erik We've been managed quite differently in the past! I always found my scenario to be true where I've worked. But you're right that it's somewhat disheartening to have everything scrambled. I also found that it didn't break anything, though. It's probably a product of small/medium business: Everyone has on many hats and there's a distinct pressure (over-reaching goals, sometimes). – CKM Apr 25 '17 at 18:34
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I don't think it is a wise decision to take an aggressive action against those three developers. any idea how could i break such attitude and how to deal with such case?

My answer assumes that as a director if necessary you can ultimately fire and hire replacement developers should you have no other option. If you cannot then you may have already lost

Any changes you impose will have to be gradual and gentle. Any drastic changes and you could be in for a mass exodus of developers or worse they could all as a group complain about you to the owner. I would not take any action directly against the three developers for what the did. I would focus more on measurable throughput.

You will need to implement some sort of process ( AGILE I would suggest ) that allows for the developers to feel as thought they have input into their work.

You will also need to purchase, or start using an existing, tool that allows for you and all team members to see progress on assigned tasks. ( and the owner too )

Eventually those who are not doing their share will be noticed by other team members and the owner too. And as side product, you establish control of the team.

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    The slack has already been noticed by the owner. That's why OP is in the picture now, to solve that problem, not escalate it. The problem is probably that any try to solve this gradually is met with a group effort to keep everything as is (with the threat that all of them are friends, so if you reprimand even just one, all of them might resign) – skymningen Apr 19 '17 at 14:00
  • @skymningen Its one thing to notice, its another to have an action plan to react to developers who are slacking off. If the three developers are truly senior finding another gig won't be hard for them. – Mister Positive Apr 19 '17 at 14:01
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    But the problem is they are slacking together. There is no team pressure to be the one who doesn't slack if everyone does and no one cares. That's why they can be resistant to change (and implementing any new idea is change). – skymningen Apr 19 '17 at 14:05
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    @skymningen I think you may want to re-read my answer. The only real solution here is to start publicly measuring throughput. And as it becomes clear who is producing and who is not you act accordingly. – Mister Positive Apr 19 '17 at 14:06
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    @skymningen The hope would be once their productivity is HIGHLY VISIBLE that they would cut the crap and do their jobs. Friends or not, no one likes to be fired and have a sudden loss of income. – Mister Positive Apr 19 '17 at 14:11
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So there are a lot of responses here about laying down the law and such, but I'd like to take the Dale Carnegie approach here:

People want to matter
People have an inherent need to feel important. use this to your advantage. You may want to meet individually with team members, and again as a whole, to remind them of how important their contributions are to the company's goal.

Let them know that the company has not been meeting it's goals and objectives, which means bonuses, raises and the like are a bit tight right now (if this is true) and that you're here to help the team grow together and with the company.

When you meet with the individuals, mention that the perception is that productivity is at an all-time low, and ask why. Ask them, from their perspective, why certain deadlines haven't been met and if there is anything that can be done to improve the environment so that the team can more easily meet their objectives.

Doing this has a lot of benefits:
- They feel that you actually care about their perspective in this situation
- They feel that their opinion on how to improve is being heard and considered
- They are reminded that their contributions are important and that they have directly impacted the success of the business (albeit for bad reasons, but this might serve as motivation to improve).
- They will be more receptive to the changes if they think they were the pioneers of those changes.

Reward System
You may consider starting a challenge. The reward can be as simple as catered food, or a happy hour or just friendly competition among teammates.

Let the team know that productivity is down, and that after having met them, you believe in them, and their abilities and set a goal to achieve some milestone that is mildly aggressive. If you achieve it, perhaps reward the bunch.

Firing people
The above works in a lot of cases, but obviously firing people is occasionally unavoidable if some employee(s) absolutely refuse to be productive. If they have grown complacent at the company for far too long and are unwilling to adapt to changes and increase their work throughput then perhaps they would be better off in a new environment where they no longer associate work with a place to waste 8 hours.

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ASK don't TELL

Treat them as a TEAM

ASK them if THEY think the owner's objectives are realistic.

If not:

ASK them to detail for you what objectives are realisitic so that you can go back to the owner.

THEN:

a. ASK them how THEY are going to achieve the owner's objectives.

b. ASK them how THEY are going to keep you up-to-date

c. ASK them how THEY are going to alert you if issues arise which interfere with the success of the Team

If the Team did not think that the owner's objectives were realistic, you can go back to the owner with their opinions and determine what he wants to do with the Team if their response is unacceptable to him. That conversation will be the one where the owner will decide what to do - fire them all, fire the three seniors, accept their opinions, etc.

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