Team Member Accused Another of Sabotaging Their Work? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I manage three large global teams. They do similar customer service, but for different product lines. They all have very seasoned team leads and produce excellent results.

Our business really took off because of the pandemic and we implemented a data-driven way to measure results that has worked well. For a long time there was friendly competition among the three teams, but we always felt like one department. People would cover for each other and even go out of their way to help colleagues on other teams when appropriate.

Recently, though, it seems that the competition has gotten less friendly—to the point that one team lead just accused another of sabotaging his team’s big push for the end of Q2.

It is very hard to assess whether or not the accusation is true. To really get to the bottom of things I would have to mount an inquiry, interview people, and probably get HR involved. I don’t know if I really want to do that. I’m not sure I have the skills or want to spend time on it. I also wonder if something else is going on here. All three teams had excellent Q2 results, regardless.

Would appreciate your thoughts on this.

Out of My Depth


Dear Out of My Depth,

You can never underestimate the capacity of human beings to find ways to create tribal conflict with groups perceived as “other.” In the paper Tribalism is Human Nature, the researchers state: “We conclude that tribal bias is a natural and nearly ineradicable feature of human cognition and that no group—not even one’s own—is immune.”

Without knowing details about the actual accusation, any evidence that was provided to support it, or any harm done, it is hard for me to formulate an intelligent response. I wonder, for instance, what exactly the accuser wants you to do about the allegations. What redress is sought?

The whole thing puts you in an untenable position of referee—or worse, judge and jury. If, in fact, the accuser is expecting some kind of retribution, you will have to get HR involved. You could be at risk of a lawsuit.

If it is more at the level of he-said-she-said petty squabbling, perhaps you can choose to pull all three team leads together. Do a big reset in an attempt to get past this and back to the more cooperative all-for-one, one-for-all culture you had before. You might take the time with your leads to walk through the tenets of trustworthiness. Here is a terrific article on the behaviors you could all commit to moving forward: The 10 Commandments of Communication to Build Trust.

Another thought: I learned a long time ago from a pair of gifted coaches, Paul and Layne Cutright, that people are never upset for the reason they think they are. This means your accuser may be upset about something his co-lead did that he either hasn’t admitted to himself or is having a hard time articulating. To get to the bottom of it, you could ask questions like:

  • What upsets you most about what happened?
  • What do you think might be done to prevent something like this in the future?
  • What do you think was going on that caused things to go the way they did?

Just keep asking questions until something useful is revealed. When people perceive a lack of fairness, they often behave irrationally. You might learn that the accuser felt he was being treated unfairly in some way.

The one thing you don’t want to do is ignore the situation. You will have to assess whether things are ugly enough to bring in the professionals (HR) or whether it would make sense to have both team leads engage in dialogue to find a way to get back on an even keel. The Cutrights developed an excellent process to use for a heart-to-heart conversation that can help both parties get all thoughts and feelings out on the table. I will put that process at the end of my response.

Once you have addressed the situation, you will need to rebuild with your team leads and make clear that anything other than cooperation will not be tolerated. That is your job as a leader.

Good luck!

Love Madeleine

PS: Here’s more on the Heart to Heart Process by Paul and Layne Cutright.

Heart-to-Heart Talks, adapted from Layne and Paul Cutright’s book Straight From the Heart

If the participants are committed to the health and success of the relationship and approach this process with a desire to be authentic and vulnerable, this can be a powerful way to discuss difficult issues and allow everyone to be heard.

The process involves three rounds of discussions and the speaker and listener have very specific roles. The speaker has to use a series of lead-in statements that structure the context of how they express their thoughts and emotions. In order to let the speaker know they have been heard and understood, and to allow additional information to be shared, the listener can only respond with the following statements:

The first round involves a series of Discovery statements designed to create openness among the participants and to learn more about each other’s perspectives. The speaker can use the following sentence starters:

The second round comprises Clearing statements that allow for the release of fears, anxiety, and stress, and to increase trust. The speaker can use the following sentence stems:

The third round involves Nurturing statements that create mental and emotional well-being in the relationship. These statements allow the participants to put closure to the difficult issues that were shared and to express appreciation for each other that sets the stage for moving forward in a positive fashion. The speaker can use the following phrases:

The facilitator can structure the process in a number of ways, but the important thing is to establish a rhythm for each round where the speaker gets a defined amount of time to share (using the lead-in statements) and the listener responds after each statement. It’s important for the listener to respond each time because it sets the proper rhythm for the discussion and validates the thoughts being shared by the speaker. The speaker should be encouraged to share whatever comes to mind without censoring their thoughts or saying what they think the other person wants to hear. If the speaker can’t think of anything to share, they can say “blank” and then repeat one of the sentence starters. Encourage the participants to keep the process moving and the thoughts will flow more quickly. At the conclusion of the three rounds, it’s important to close the discussion with a recap of the desired outcomes and any action items the participants want to pursue.

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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