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How Good Listening Skills Help You Manage Bad Teams

Executive Summary

Breaking down the walls they have between their work and each other so they can focus on common goals and values is key to successfully leading a “bad” team.

  • Even the strongest leaders can end up with an unhealthy and unmotivated team.
  • Whether they realize it or not, your team is relying on you to help break down the silo walls they have built around them—the health and the morale of your team depend on it.
  • Using your listening skills, identify what makes each team member feel needed and essential, and then do your best to validate the value they bring to the table.

“Good management consists of showing average people how to do the work of superior people.”

—John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist and Philanthropist


THE SCENARIO: The good news is that my boss just put me in charge of my first major project. The bad news is that the team I’m managing is mostly—how do I put this politely?—a bunch of losers. One guy, Jonas, is really smart, and I think I can count on him to come through. But I’m also stuck with Dirk, who’s two years from retirement and wants to do the least amount of work possible. My lead analyst is Linda, who’ll spend half her time at the water cooler complaining about everyone. And Sherry, the fourth member of the team, is senior to me and probably wanted my assignment, so I’m expecting some hard feelings. As a new and inexperienced manager, I don’t have a clue where to start. Help!


First, realize that you—and many other managers these days—are dealing with “silos”: people who are self-involved, thinking only of themselves, and working less and less cooperatively. That’s especially true if you’re in a field where rampant mergers and layoffs have shredded any sense of corporate or interpersonal loyalty.

As long as your team members stay in their silos, your job will be next to impossible. That’s because these people will fail to share information, resulting in major mistakes and wasted effort. They’ll refuse to share their expertise, making everyone’s job harder. And when things get tough, they may even fall into a pattern of sniping or outright sabotage. So the first thing you need to do is hone your listening skills so you can break down the thick walls between these silos, and build on what you do have in common: a shared vision and shared values.


1. Point Out the Problem

Step 1 in this process is to hold a meeting with your team. Your goal at this meeting is to increase your team members’ sense of passion, enthusiasm, and pride in your project.

Start out like this:

“You are all outstanding professionals and highly skilled at what you do, and I’m lucky to have you on our team. Unfortunately, like nearly all professionals these days, we’ve all turned into silos to focus on what we need to do. The good news is that this allows us to function well in our own areas; the bad news is that it makes it more difficult for us to work cooperatively.

To beat the competition, we need to work seamlessly together like an NBA Championship team, World Series winner, Super Bowl winner, or gold medal–winning Olympic team. What gets superstars on those teams to work together and beat other teams is that they lower the competitiveness among the individuals on their own teams. Right now, our company and I need you to work together like one of those winning teams. So we’re going to build on what silos have in common, besides big walls between each other.

The two things silos have in common are the sky above—which is a shared vision we all believe and enthusiastically buy into—and the ground below—which is the shared values we all want to honor and live by. Every winning team has the shared vision of winning a championship and the shared value of flawless execution. So let’s take the time to clarify what those are for all of us.”

2. Ask for Input

Let people talk about what vision they’re passionate about and how this project is part of achieving it. Let them talk about what they’re enthusiastic about when their team is buzzing and productive, and what they’re proud of (or not proud of) about the company.

Draw out comments about the changes they want to see to feel more passionate, enthusiastic, and proud about what they’re doing. As you do this, you’ll feel your team’s initial apathy or hostility gradually morph into excitement and energy.

3. Remind Them of Their Value

Of course, that’s just Step 1—because once this excited and revved-up team leaves the room, they’ll still be Jonas, Dirk, Linda, and Sherry, and they’ll still have issues with you and each other. Ignore these issues, and soon your inspiring words will fade away and everyone will hunker down in their silos again. To prevent that, use your listening skills to figure out what you need to do to reach each team member and make that person think, “I care about this project and I want to do my best.”


Some suggestions:

  • Keep Jonas happy.

Jonas is self-motivated, so don’t ride herd on him. Instead, stay out of his way—and acknowledge his value by employing the Power Thank You at strategic times.

For instance, in a status meeting where the bigwigs are in attendance, say, “Great news—we’re actually ahead of target. Last month things looked pretty rocky, but Jonas worked overtime and pulled off a couple of major miracles to solve the supply problem. Thanks to him, we’re exceeding our goals.”

Also, remember that the best thing you can do for talented and motivated workers like Jonas is to remove obstacles, which includes toxic people. So for God’s sake, don’t pair him up with Linda.

  • Make Dirk feel needed.

If Dirk’s like most workers edging toward retirement, he can still get plenty fired up. You just need to supply the spark. To do that, let him know he’s valuable—because lots of older employees feel underappreciated or shoved aside, especially if they’re working under a young manager. So say things like, “You have the most experience with this software—is it okay if the younger team members rely on you as a mentor?”

Also, let Dirk know you find him interesting and intelligent by asking transformational questions like: “With your experience, what do you see as the most important thing our division could do in the future to add value to the company?”

If Dirk continues to be a low achiever, take him out to lunch and use the Fill-in-the-Blanks approach (“I’m guessing that you sometimes find your work frustrating because ____________”). Odds are you’ll uncover a problem you can solve together.

  • Make Linda feel important.

Remember what I said earlier about making annoying people feel valuable? That’s your ticket with Linda. In addition to Linda’s regular duties, assign her a task that you specify is very important. Make sure, however, that this task doesn’t interfere with the rest of the team. In fact, if you can, give Linda a task that benefits the whole team so she’ll invest more heavily in its success.

When Linda comes to you with the results of her assigned task (for instance, the office supply needs of the team), say something like, “Okay, I’ll handle that right away—and thank you. I know you need to take time away from your own work to check with everybody each week—so if you like, I’ll ask the people who are allocating responsibilities for you to free up some of your time. We really need you to keep us all on track.”

Again, this encourages her to buy into the success of the whole team. If Linda doesn’t reform and continues to carp and complain, consider using the “Do you really believe that?” question to stop her complaints. (“I overheard you saying that your team members are idiots and we’ll never meet our goals. Do you really believe that?”) Or try the Empathy Jolt—for instance, by asking her, “How do you think Dirk feels when you criticize him for being slow?”

  • Get Sherry’s secret out in the open.

Your boss probably had a very good reason for giving this project to you and not Sherry, so don’t feel insecure about it. However, since you both know that she’s senior to you and she probably expected this assignment, a little stipulation can help clear the air. For instance, say, “Sherry, I’m especially grateful to you for the hard work you’re putting in on this project. I know I’m newer and less experienced than you, and some people in that position would resent having me as their manager, but you’ve been really supportive. I’ve learned a lot from watching you, and I think it’ll make me a better manager.” (That’s a stipulation and a Power Thank You all rolled into one—extra points!)

When you acknowledge Sherry’s secret thought—”Why is this upstart getting my job?”—and defuse it with your graciousness and humility, Sherry will be far more willing to leave her silo and join your team.



Oh, and one last word of advice: Stop fretting over being new and inexperienced and recognize that you got this job because you’re good.

Project confidence, and you’ll inspire confidence. Project insecurity, and everyone will sense it. (Or, as the diplomat and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson once put it: “It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.”) So assume that you’re the best manager your company has ever had—and then go out and prove it.


If you currently manage a business team, list your team members’ names on a piece of paper. Go down the list and identify two kinds of “silos”: The “grain silos,” who quietly put in their eight-hour days aloof and alone, and the “missile silos,” who sit hunkered behind their walls ready to shoot down any perceived offender.

Using the listening skills you’ve learned, approach these individuals one by one, and see how many are willing to lower their walls when you address them with empathy, humility, and a sincere willingness to understand them.


Mark Goulston

Mark Goulston is a business advisor, consultant, coach, speaker, and psychiatrist. The author of Get Out of Your Own Way and other popular books, he blogs for Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Business Insider, The Huffington Post, and Psychology Today; co-hosts a weekly radio show; and is featured frequently in major media, including The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Newsweek, Time, CNN, Fox News, and the TODAY show.


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