blocked road

The Tricky Business of Leading Teams

How to pilot through the human roadblocks that clog the path to project execution.

By Julie Benezet

On my parents’ otherwise unadorned coffee table lay two items: a tasteful, albeit unused, ashtray and a large, red book. The book contained a cartoon collection from the famous British humor magazine, Punch. As kids, we spent hours flopped on the couch giggling through its many pages of droll English humor.

One cartoon sticks in my memory because of its enduring relevance. It showed a windowless, doorless house. At the bottom of the center front wall a saw protrudes from its interior that is cutting an opening for the people stuck inside. The caption reads, “Confound it! I thought YOU were building the door!”

For me, the image captures what happens when leaders do not devote serious attention to making sure their team members know their respective roles and responsibilities. It’s an affliction in virtually every organization I’ve encountered. Fixing the problem should be simple, but somehow it isn’t. The resulting dysfunction can lead to project failure.

A key reason for avoiding the problem is that establishing roles and responsibilities trips defensive levers around power, identity, and competence.

Lack of team agreement on which people lead, approve, or do the work, inevitably leads to confusion. The issue tends to appear when a project is in full swing and important steps are missed. Cries of recrimination erupt because things are done incorrectly, without authority, or not at all. Critical questions are asked: “Did anyone check the contractual scope of work before doing it?” “Who was supposed to call the city about how long the permit process will take?” or, my personal favorite, “Did someone check with the attorney first to make sure that’s okay?”

Introducing the Human Roadblocks

In the middle of the chaos appear the Human Roadblocks, a cast of characters whose behavior thwarts successful project execution.

The Over-Functioner. This individual derives their value from being the go-to person who will always come through, even when it is outside their job description. Others like that person’s behavior because it allows the rest of them to avoid things they don’t want to do. What ensues is a bottleneck while the Over-Functioner struggles to figure out how and when to do all the work.

The Martyr. Similar to the Over-Functioner, the Martyr inherits the void others have created. Unlike the Over-Functioner, the Martyr hates the extra work and feels abused. They passive aggressively react by doing a mediocre job and then complaining about it. It provides them with an identity and a guilt-tripping opportunity.

“Moi?” This person can never find a reason why they should be responsible. They constantly question whether something falls within their job description. “Well, how could we possibly do Y when we haven’t seen the X study results?” They pass on suggesting how to surmount the contingency.

The Border Guard. This person treats their functional area as a personal fiefdom. This often appears in project management roles with generic position definitions. Nevertheless, they will start a holy war if anyone fails to respect the ill-defined boundary. They spend little time learning what others do, much less how to advance the project goals.

The Procrastinator. A first cousin of “Moi?” this person knows their role, but the right time to act never appears. “We don’t have enough data,” they whine, or when asked about the status of an assignment, they say something noncommittal and disappear down the hall.

These counterproductive behaviors may be conscious or unconscious. Both result in project dysfunction.

Piloting through Human Roadblocks

Preventing project dysfunction offers an important leadership opportunity, as somebody needs to carve a course through the thicket of confusion, stubbornness, and fear around how the work should be structured. The process of defining roles and responsibilities begins with laying out the tasks that need to be done, followed by designating which persons should lead, approve, or do the work.

Then comes the hard part. In mapping what people believe about who should do what, conflicting assumptions emerge that have not been said out loud before. Once said, tension grows as the group struggles to disentangle the conflicts. Baked into this process are many awkward moments. There is a reason why people obstruct progress. Chances are they are unaware of their resistance, much less the reasons for it. That’s where leaders earn their pay.

Leaders take on thorny conversations to uncover the source of team member resistance and what it will take to move past it. Reasons for obstruction include insecurity, fear of losing control or inadequate training. It also could be lack of buy-in for the project. While each person is unique, below are common issues for the Human Roadblocks and ideas for intervention:

The Over-Functioner worries about loss of status in the organization if they don’t own all the pieces of a project. Defining their roles and responsibilities specifically and reinforcing their importance would be an important first step. Supporting the person’s value independent of their work would help wean them away from correlating their self-worth with their job.

The Martyr feels unappreciated based on past experiences that might go all the way back to family of origin issues. While the leader is not expected to act as a therapist, pinpointing the issue and its impact on their current team would be a good first step. To deepen the chances of change, a second step would be to support the person in seeking coaching or counseling on the past.

The Moi personavoids responsibility. Their aversion could be due to a previous bad work experience, lack of adequate training, or lack of confidence. Identifying the reason for the avoidance cracks the door open to awareness of the defensive behavior and how it does not play well with their current team. Researchers have found that opinions of peers can have a powerful impact on performance. The leader can work with them on a plan to rectify the behavior and create a training plan.

control of a situation is appropriate when deep expertise is needed or there is an emergency. In ordinary times, however, teamwork requires a give and take, even when the Border Guard is the ultimate decision maker. Improving the Border Guard’s listening skills to understand the skillsets and motivators of their team members might lessen their hold on control. It also would be beneficial to surface what they fear would happen should they loosen the reins.

The Procrastinator wants to avoid accountability. If they don’t deliver, then they can’t be held responsible for the outcome. They might suffer from fear of failure, often resulting in perfectionist behavior, or have issues with authority. Whatever the underlying issue, working with them to break the work into manageable bites, agree on due dates and provide regular check-ins will help break the pattern.

The rewards for human behavior intervention

Overcoming Human Roadblocks requires patience, open mindedness, and a willingness for both the leader and team members to change. While the process of navigating through challenging human behavior requires concerted time and energy, it aligns and empowers the team. More important, it increases the probability of project success. Such outcomes make the work of getting there well worth the investment.