How To Manage a Hostile Team of Employees
9 Tips for Supervising Frustrated Employees in Tough Times
Managing a team is tough business. Meeting deadlines, tracking budgets, developing your staff and managing employee performance are just some of the things we are responsible for. Outside factors and difficult customers add to the stress, but the role becomes infinitely more difficult when the team you’re managing is noticeably unhappy.
How do you deal with an unhappy team? How do manage hostilities and anger when the causes are out of your control? How can you reassure employees that things will get better?
Managing a hostile team adds an extra challenge to an already complex job. Fortunately, the answers to these questions hinge on communication. And, how you engage the team can reduce hostility and improve the situation.
Here are 9 tips for how to manage a hostile team and navigate a difficult situation.
My Own Experience Managing a Hostile Team
I had recently absorbed another team into my organization as part of some corporate shuffling and restructuring. In truth, the sudden changes were both poorly conceived and executed so there were many questions to begin with. But, with senior management seemingly making split-second decisions about big changes, my newly acquired employees were left confused and concerned.
Here are some of their comments:
- “Why after all this time doing X, have we chosen Y? Why is this better?”
- “This makes me concerned about job security.”
- “I guess we’re just supposed to figure this out?”
- “What do you know about the decisions that were made and who was involved?”
Although it was a group of individuals I knew well and had worked closely with over the years, I suddenly encountered a team full of hostility and bitterness about the abrupt shuffling of teams, and the corresponding lack of communication. While I knew their concerns had nothing to do with me personally, it didn’t matter – I was now responsible for managing them.
Tips for Managing a Hostile Team at Work
Here are my 9 tips and strategies for supervising a disgruntled staff and how to regain the trust that was lost.
1. Be Transparent
For starters, it’s important to understand that employee hostility is normally a byproduct of organizational distrust. The challenges and frustration you’re facing from employees is often the result of something outside your control but you’re dealing with the impact – which was the case in my situation.
Employees may not feel they’re being given all the information. Further, they may not believe the organization is watching out for them or treating them fairly in some way.
Regardless of what the specific situation is, it is important to boost the team’s trust in you to start. The best way to do this is to foster an open, honest dialog about the circumstances and to provide support to them as best as possible.
Here are some pointers for building transparency:
- Tell them what you know.
- Don’t give them a general ‘corporate speech’ – be genuine.
- Express a shared concern, if appropriate.
- Commit to finding answers to their questions. Commit to sharing information as it becomes available.
Recognize that you may not have all the answers, but your commitment to finding them will go a long way to reducing some of the hostility. In situations like this, employees need to know that their leader is looking out for them.
2. Provide Some Perspective
It’s both impossible and impractical for the CEO of a 5,000-person company to sit down with each employee and explain the rationale behind every strategic decision that is made. As organizations get larger – and ours was very large – only a very small percentage of people are witness to the actual conversation in the board room. This includes most managers and leaders of people.
Therefore, companies rely on things like a company-wide email announcing a big change, or a simple post on the company’s intranet site to cascade the news. This type of communication, however, often leaves more questions than answers.
That said, even though we may not have a seat at the table in the board room, we as managers often do have more inside information than we realize. We review financials as part of our daily activities, we participate in strategy discussions, present to executives periodically, and we tend to hear about initiatives before they’re implemented.
But how much of that do we share with our teams?
When managing a frustrated team, their concerns often lie in the fact that they don’t know how a certain decision was made, or why a change was implemented.
Here are some examples of how your knowledge of the organization can help reduce employee hostility:
- After a layoff, explain how staffing size is determined so employees better understand.
- After an announcement that a sister division is being sold, discuss the importance of profitability, portfolio management and maintaining a healthy business.
- Following the cancellation of a big R&D project, address the importance of how the company’s investments must be linked to market research.
As best as possible, use the knowledge you have from your daily activities to shed light on how decisions are being made. In other words, to address trust issues, take the time to provide some perspective that goes further than just a company-wide email.
The perspective you offer as a more familiar face will be reassuring to your staff among the uncertainty.
3. Assert Your Expectations of Professionalism
While sympathy and a nurturing mindset are helpful when managing a hostile workforce, sometimes you need to draw some boundaries of acceptable behavior. Ultimately, everyone on the team is a professional and needs to behave like it – and that starts with you.
People may not like what is happening nor understand why certain things are changing, but that does not excuse them from upholding a professional standard.
In order to reaffirm the boundaries of behavior:
- Publicly assert an expectation of professional conduct.
- Do not let rumors or speculation take root – address them openly with facts.
- Address specific employee behaviors in private, if needed.
Given all the sudden changes that had taken place, I quickly called a staff meeting to answer questions as best I could, even though I was caught off-guard just as much as they were. The frustration was highly evident (and I understood why). Some employees clearly spoke up to get some things off their chest.
After letting my new employees vent for nearly an hour, though, I also used it as an opportunity to reiterate that while there were many questions to be answered, we were all professionals and that needed to remain the standard. We would work through it together.
4. Acknowledge and Understand the Issues
Simply saying you intend to make things better is not going to get you far. If you don’t invest time in truly understanding the sources of employee hostility and dissatisfaction, you cannot take steps and actions to address them.
Employees want to feel heard. Here are some questions to ask to get the conversation started:
- How do you feel things are going?
- Are there any lingering issues that you feel need to be resolved?
- I can tell you’re frustrated. What’s bothering you?
- I can’t address concerns if I don’t know what they are. What’s the real issue?
- What do you think we can improve or how can we make this situation better?
Letting employees speak candidly is an incredibly impactful way to build trust and reassurance. They will realize that you may not be able to resolve the issues right away but knowing that you understand is a big step in the right direction.
5. Engage in Private
As much as public and team-wide communication are important, private discussions are often needed to fully address individual points of concern and hostility.
Even among a close-knit group of colleagues, individuals may not wish to speak candidly in public. And, just because an employee stays quiet doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t have concerns. Passive-aggressive comments, or total silence are both indications that something is amiss.
A private conversation in your office can often root out specific issues and worries the employee has without feeling embarrassed in front of their teammates.
You may learn, for example, that an employee is concerned about job security because his wife is expecting their first child. Or, one staff member might be concerned she is not seeing opportunities for growth and development and feels her career is off track.
Here are some tips for discussing the situation individually with your team members:
- Set up 1:1s with each employee to reiterate your message and openly discuss concerns.
- Ask if there are any specific concerns they have, or circumstances you should know about.
- Ask if they feel they can be successful in their role, or what help is needed.
- Understand why they are concerned about a given issue, or what they feel is missing. Reaffirm your commitment to supporting them.
6. Become a Public Advocate and Take Action
As discussed, organizational distrust is often a key contributor to a team’s hostility – feeling like the organization isn’t watching out for them, considering their wellbeing, or understanding what they’re going through.
You can be a fantastic boss and your staff may love you, but when there are big gears moving elsewhere in the business, it can still be unsettling and fuel tensions.
After you’ve dug into the heart of their concerns, the most effective way to combat employee hostility is to take action and become an advocate for them – and to let them see it.
Here are some tips for becoming a public advocate:
- Seek an audience with the decisions makers to get a first-hand look at the situation.
- Send emails to your boss or their boss asking for clarification on matters of importance. Then forward responses to your team.
- Copy employees on correspondence to HR asking for updated information where needed.
- Stop by your employee’s desk at random with updates to show the concerns are actively being addressed.
Demonstrating to your team you are working to address their concerns on their behalf can greatly help them feel supported and assured that they’re not being ignored.
7. Increase Communication Flow
Workplace hostility can also emerge from communication breakdowns and a perceived growing gap between teams and different levels of the organization.
Increasing the flow of general communication to your team – of initiatives, of changes, or just general news – can help subside the wave of feeling left in the dark. While these won’t necessarily eliminate all frustration and hostilities, being part of the discussion does help ease staff concerns.
Where there are individual concerns – such as feeling over-worked or a personal situation outside of the office – communicate updates to those individuals personally.
8. Address Specific Problems Head-On
Having a team that’s concerned and feeling ignored is one thing. Having a disgruntled employee who is disrupting the entire department is another. In these situations, we need to be more aggressive with our approach.
In a 1:1 meeting with the employee:
- Understand his/her specific concerns.
- Confront issues that are detrimental to the team.
- Ask how they think the situation can improve, and what role he/she can play.
- Ask if they want it to improve.
If you are managing an individual who seems more intent on stirring up trouble than being a team player, you need to address that aspect of the performance and behavior. Say what needs to be said – rarely does a disgruntled worker’s attitude just get better without you taking the role of a strong leader.
9. Focus Employees on What’s Really Important
Over my years of managing team, I’ve come to learn that highly capable employees do not like spending time on non-value-added tasks. They want to use their talents and intellect to tackle big challenges.
What does this have to do with managing a hostile team? Indirectly, feeling like they’re wasting their time on non-essential tasks will add fuel to the frustration fire. An employee’s real concerns and dissatisfactions are often amplified when forced to do mundane tasks, even if there’s no correlation.
Need proof? Think about a time you were frustrated with things at work, and how you felt spending time on those weekly reports you were confident no one actually read.
Eliminating – or reducing – non-value-added assignments and chores can act as a quick win to help put some minds at ease. It won’t change the big picture concerns, but it can help employees feel more valued. Doing so can also earn you a few bonus points as you work to right the ship.
Managing a Hostile Team at Work
Leading a team when employees are obviously frustrated is a complex situation that must be handled with care. Seek out some quick wins and tackle the elephants in the room. Fortunately, by understanding the real issues and advocating for them within the larger organization can greatly improve a difficult situation.