Addition by Subtraction

The title of this article came from a student in one of my online classes on Team Dynamics. He got the phrase from an “extraordinary” Chief Master Sergeant named Jim, currently serving at the Pentagon. I really love the phrase because it is so simple, yet so profound.

We are all familiar with some of the problems that occur when working in teams. In this article, I want to focus on the impact that can be made by a single person who is a misfit in the group and slows down all team progress.

I need to be careful to describe the phenomenon correctly. Normally, I am an advocate of having diversity of opinion and styles within a team. Reason: respectful differences in outlook or opinion are healthy because they usually lead to more creative and robust solutions. If you have a team of clones who all think alike on most issues, you have a mono-culture that may seem to work well, but it will probably lead to myopic solutions. In general, having “different” people on a team is a good thing.

Unfortunately, we have all had the experience of being on a team where one individual simply stops forward progress on a regular basis. The root cause may be a personality deficiency or some kind of chemistry problem between members. The person may become moody or bellicose and derail group processes at every opportunity. In rare cases there is an intent to stop the efforts of a team, sort of like a sport.

I am not writing about a person on the team who fills a Devil’s advocate role from time to time in order to prevent the group from slipping into a dangerous group think. Nor am I referring to the person with a concern or observation who voices it in a polite way. The person I am describing is one who habitually takes a contrarian view and refuses to accept the fact that he or she is derailing conversation rather than fostering a balanced discussion.

I advocate that any team should have a written and agreed-upon set of expected behaviors. These statements indicate our agreement on how we will treat each other along with specific consequences for members who do not comply. If peer pressure and body language fail to convince the person to stop the disruptive behavior, then it is time for the person’s manager to do some private coaching. Sometimes that can make at least a temporary improvement However, some individuals just cannot or will not change. Stronger measures are required. The solution is rather obvious. The person needs to find some other way to get entertainment, and should be excused from the team.

This surgery is really “addition by subtraction.” Reason: once the problem person is removed, the entire team will breathe a sigh of relief, because now decisions and progress can occur more easily. I have had grateful team members come to me with tears of gratitude in their eyes saying, “Oh thank you! Removing Frank from the team took some courage, but we are so grateful to have the ability to navigate without him. Life will be so much better for all of us because of your action.”

Removing a problem person from a team is often a painful process. Egos can get bruised or there may be an ugly scene. My advice is to take the action, but only after you have exhausted all remedial efforts.

5 Responses to Addition by Subtraction

  1. Steve Royal says:

    I agree that having a disruptive person on a team can be a problem, bu I’m not sure a facilitator should remove that person except only as a last resort. My experience is that very few people are disruptive enough to warrant such drastic action. Often, they just need attention and disrupting a team meeting is an easy way to get it.

    I have found two ways to handle this. First, addressing the person’s concern by acknowledging that it may be valid enough to discuss later is very effective. Most people will be happy if the facilitator remains friendly and offers to listen by posting the concern visually (sometimes called a “parking lot”). A chart pad works well for this. Posting the concern for all to see with a comment that, while there isn’t time to discuss it right now, the team can discuss it at the end of the session, is usually satisfying enough to keep the concerned person pleased (and quiet) for the moment. Plus, it takes very little time.

    Frankly, the issue is usually forgotten about by the end of the meeting, anyway, so it is rarely a problem.

    To make this more likely, here is another method to use.

    Because the basic problem is a usually a need for attention, one other technique works extremely well–involve the disruptive person in he conversation. Ask a question of the group (even something like, “What do you think about this concept?”). There is always a pause before someone answers, during which the facilitator can ask the disruptive person, “What ‘s your opinion about this?” Then, wait for an answer! Skillfully done, you will be surprised how cooperative your problem person can become.

    Amazing things will happen. Suddenly seeing that his or her opinion is appreciated, attitude changes. All of a sudden, that person may become the main contributor. Now the facilitator will have trouble keeping the disruptive person from becoming too vocal about good things..

    That’s the kind of problem the facilitator wants!

    Obviously, these techniques won’t work all of the time, and, in fact, it takes a skilled facilitator to pull off them successfully, but, hey, it’s better, in my opinion, than throwing a potential excellent resource out the door.

    Steve Royal

  2. Lucrezia says:

    Some ppoele seem to think that just because you are friends with others means you can use them for your own advantages….good for you that you have learnt a lesson and became a better person….^O^….two thumbs up for ya….;)

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  5. […] have written elsewhere (Addition by Subtraction) about how removing some of the combative people who refuse to cooperate actually makes the work […]

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