Avoiding and managing a “Iwan Thomas” in your workplace

Every so often I get snared by popular TV and, shamefully, this month I’ve been glued to watching Bear Grylls’ Celebrity Island.   This extraordinary exposé of cringe-worthy team dynamics, painful character flaws and conflict has been riveting with the most entertainment undoubtedly coming from Iwan Thomas, former Olympic athlete, whose ‘self-appointed’ leadership caused pretty much all of the aggravation.  Of course, we don’t endure starvation, tropical storms, marauding mosquitoes and zero facilities in our workplaces, but what it showed is how difficult it is to have successful group dynamics when you have no expert knowledge, no-one knowing their particular roles and no means for conflict resolution.

Since leaving the Island, Iwan Thomas has admitted he was a bit of jerk.   A recent McKinsey study identified 62% of respondents saying they had been treated rudely by a work colleague at least once a month.  It’s not rocket science to see that this damages morale and so isn’t good for productivity and efficiency in your workplace.  But what was additionally frustrating about Iwan’s behaviour, was that he made decisions without any expertise or knowledge and led the group repeatedly into making the same mistakes.    It took the full four-weeks before the group started to acknowledge each other’s strengths and weaknesses, leading to more defined roles and responsibilities based on true capabilities and, unsurprisingly, the endless the cycle of failures was broken.

Celebrity Island is a crude analogy but it reminds us of why it is so crucial to recruit the right people and provide them with job descriptions with set expectations and boundaries.  Working with CEOs as I do, I cannot stress enough the benefit that comes from having the right team around you.  Do interview candidates hard and if you need a certain skill set, test them on it.  Recently I was asked to explain a cash-flow statement in a Non-Executive Director interview.  That surprised me, but my being financially literate obviously was very important and putting me on the spot was better than just assuming I could because my CV suggested so.  For senior roles, interview multiple times and in different settings, both social and formal, and ask your team how this person has interacted with them outside of the interview.    Take up references and where possible informally reference too and don’t just listen to referees spout on about how good the candidate is, ask them to give examples.  Finally, be wary of trusting your own instinct as we are all plagued by unconscious bias which happens when our brains make incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people without us realising. Our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences and they generally will hinder you from making the best hiring decisions.

On the Island we saw lots of conflict and, if I’d been there, it would have tested every conflict resolution skill I’ve ever learned from the mediation training I’ve done and from life (as I have two small children, need I say more?).  I’ve lifted this from a recent article by Lionel Valdellon, titled, “Team Conflict & Conflict Resolution: The 2-Minute Guide” as it is a great synopsis of things everyone can do to manage team conflict:

  • Keep calm. If you’re agitated, you will resolve nothing.
  • Stay alert! If you’re attentive, you can read the situation and interpret verbal and nonverbal communication.
  • Communicate without threatening.  Talking like a fascist dictator will only frighten everyone more. No one will listen to you. Your nonverbal communication is as important as your words.
  • Respect all differences. Keep language and tone neutral, and avoid disrespectful words. Problems aren’t solved by calling people “idiots” and “drama queens.”
  • Use humour carefully. A well-timed, non-insulting joke can defuse a situation faster than anything.
  • Be generous. Keep in mind that resolving the conflict is more important for the working relationship than “winning” the fight. Which is why generosity is needed. Know when to let go of grudges. Know when to forgive and forget. Learn to hear the apology that was never said.

So, my advice is to avoid hiring a ‘Iwan Thomas’ in the first place by careful selection of your team, but, not wishing to be too derogatory about poor Iwan (who did almost redeem himself on the programme), people can be managed by good conflict resolution skills and these skills are hugely useful in business because, however hard you try to avoid it, you are going to have someone at some point behave like a jerk in your office.

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Author: Jill Ridley-Smith

Jill works with start-up and scale-up companies as a Non-Executive Director, business mentor, coach, advisor and investor. She is a Non-Executive Director on the Boards of The Digital Catapult, Nottingham Trent University, Smartzer and Pearson Ham. In addition, she volunteers as a business mentor for the government's Start-Up Loans scheme. Previously Jill worked in private equity investment and portfolio management at HgCapital and held management roles at GlaxoSmithKline and LEK Consulting. She is an experienced Non-Executive Director with over 15 years of experience working at Board level. Jill graduated in Economics from the University of Bristol in 1994. She completed her Master’s in Business Administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Illinois in 1999. She is an accredited commercial mediator qualifying in 2012 from the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR). Jill is married with two children and lives in London.

One thought on “Avoiding and managing a “Iwan Thomas” in your workplace”

  1. Good advice. I would add; there are no difficult people,just people in difficulty. This changes how I think and act towards people who would otherwise cause me to be negative.

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