A team member is thinking about quitting after hearing that they did not get a leadership position. What do?

So today, leadership positions were announced on our team. One of our team members couldn’t make it to the meeting, so after it was over, I gave them the list of people who were leaders on our team. They got upset, said some things that shouldn’t be shared on chief delphi, and wanted to quit the team. What do?

Ideally, the distribution of leadership positions shouldn’t be very surprising/polarizing. There could be an underlying issue with the leadership structure or selection process that needs to be addressed. However, a lot more context would be required to determine that.

Can you describe what the selection process was like and why (from your perspective) the student was expecting a leadership position, but did not get one?

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The choosing process isn’t purely randomized as you have to be voted (not in a democratic way) in order to get considered. The person that got upset has been on the team for a really long time, and they sort of expected to get a leadership position.

Can you clarify on what you mean here? Also, did the student get to the “in consideration” stage, or not? Were students present at the meeting able to advocate for themselves as candidates? Also, what’s the leadership structure on your team like? Are there only a fixed number of leadership positions, or is it more flexible?

As much detail as possible (while still respecting anonymity) would be helpful here.

By “voted in” I mean something along the lines of appointment by the mentors. It wasn’t made clear as to whether or not they were in the consideration stage as that really isn’t information everyone gets to know. Leadership is split into engineering, executive, cad, outreach, electronics/programming, strategy, and manufacturing captains. Around the time when build season starts, captains are announced for subsections under what the captains are responsible for (for example, we have “subteam” captains for different mechanisms on our robot).

Okay, I think I’m starting to get a better picture. A couple more questions (thanks for your patience!):

  • Is there a fixed number of the at-large leadership positions (e.g. one for engineering, one for executive, etc), or is it more flexible depending on the interest / ability of that year’s candidates?
  • Is there a vehicle for students to express their interest / advocate for themselves to the mentors (e.g. some sort of application process)?
  • Is there a set of guidelines / criteria they can aim for (and are told about) that would better their chances of getting a leadership position?
  • Do you specifically know of / have an inkling for why the student wasn’t chosen / why someone else was chosen over them? Were they aiming for a particular position?

Based on the original post, I thought it was going to be something along the lines of what you’ve described. I was guessing that the person was expecting to be in leadership and wasn’t, and would have suggested asking if you weren’t sure.

At this point, I think it would be beneficial for that person to have a one-on-one or two-on-two with some of the mentors, regardless of whether they stay on the team or not. The questions that should be asked (and one the student should ask him/herself):

  1. Did I make my desire to be on the leadership team known? (ask self/ask mentor)
  2. Were the mentors aware that I expected/desired to be on the leadership team?

The answers to those reflect the degree of communication between students and mentors, etc. Basically, question 2 above.

  1. Was I under consideration for a position (and which one)?
  2. What did the mentors see, or need to see, that resulted in another person being selected?
  3. What can I improve on?

This set goes more into the uncomfortable range for the student, but is probably the most beneficial in the long run. If there’s something specific that the mentors saw that they didn’t like, and they haven’t addressed it, they may take this opportunity to do so. Or, conversely, the mentors may have not seen something they really needed to see for a leader, and that would be a place to improve for the student in question.

And it could simply be that they saw that this student has been on the team for a while, but isn’t the best to lead any of the overall sections–there are simply better students on the team. If THAT’s the case, it’s entirely possible that they’re looking to put them as a subteam captain later, though a wise mentor might not say that to the student’s face.

There’s one other question that I think would be beneficial to ask the student first, though: Were they told that they were going to be one of the leaders, by a mentor? If they were, “what we have here is a failure to communicate”.

Now, to convince the student to stay on the team or let them quit… Honestly it depends on the student. Some people can handle that sort of disappointment, but may need to blow off steam first. Others can’t. It’ll depend a lot on the discussion with the mentor(s) and how that goes.

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I don’t think putting all the onus on the upset student is the best way to bring progress, since they’re probably already flustered and feel as though the team doesn’t respect them. Requiring them to confront their mentors about it is probably asking too much. In particular, the student’s frustrations are probably indicative of a larger problem with the selection process, so (IMHO) the student’s perspective should be something the team actively seeks out in order to identify / fix any such problems.

I think the mentors/leaders should be made aware the student is upset, and the mentors should be encouraged to seek reconciliation (if appropriate). If the mentors reach out to the student, I think it would go a long way towards making it clear that the student’s perspective and relationship with the team are appreciated, and the student would have an easier time sharing their concerns and engaging in discussion with the mentors.

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I think having mentors select leadership roles like this can be a very dangerous double edged sword. A mentor, especially an experienced one, can probably recognize the qualities of a good leader and might see these qualities and more in someone who could be overlooked in a student election. Conversely, the relationship the student leaders have with their teammates is arguably more important than some other criteria of “leadership”. It’s also possible that what the mentors observe isn’t consistent with what’s actually going on. It can be difficult for an adult mentor to accurately gauge this kind of thing among teenagers.

Point being, it might be beneficial for there to be a discussion about how this mentor-selected student leadership team could/should change. Perhaps the process could be more open. Students could state their case for being a leader to the mentors either privately or in front of the rest of the team (that’s for you to decide, I don’t know what’s best) and the selection could continue from there as is. The selection could also be opened up as a team wide election with mentor guidance to prevent a popularity contest from arising. Maybe change nothing and just increase transparency everywhere.

Whatever decision the student decides to make about being on the team, there should be some conversation (involving the student in question, the mentors, and maybe some other trusted students) about this system, why it’s in place, why it’s beneficial, etc. Perhaps if the student can rationalize the emotions they’re feeling they’ll be compelled to remain on the team which would probably be in everyone’s best interest. I can definitely sympathize with how the student might feel like they’re being told they aren’t good enough despite their hard work. I would like to believe that isn’t actually what’s going on though.

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I agree, in general, especially that the student’s perspective should be sought out. However:

–I think it’s beneficial to have that discussion, and answer those questions. They don’t have to be phrased the way I phrased them. But I do think they need to be answered, regardless of who initiates the conversation. If you don’t have the answers to those questions, you can’t find the issue, whether it’s team structure, communication, or personal issues.

–If it’s a personal issue with the student, I think it’s best that the student ask those questions (or have the answers given to them). This isn’t necessarily the short-term best–I’m looking long-term. It’s entirely possible that the mentors have noticed something but haven’t had reason or occasion to bring it up to the student; if the information is not passed on, the next chance to confront that may be in the form of a HR discussion at the future workplace, of the type best described as “shape up or go out the door for the last time”.

As far as the onus being on the upset student: I can understand where you’re coming from. Do you think that any needed change is going to come without the student starting some sort of process? Even if it’s having a friend talk to the mentors to express frustration… The thing is, I don’t recommend doing it right away. A week or so of cooldown/mediation is more along the lines of what I’d be thinking timewise, maybe more maybe less. But if you never have the tough conversations, you never learn when you might need to start them.

I think if a student is upset enough to have an outburst like the OP describes and express their desire to quit the team, a conversation within the team (with or without the student) about how this could’ve been prevented / what can be changed needs to happen. I think the questions you brought up are good examples of what should be addressed.

I completely agree with you that that conversation should happen after some sort of cool-off period. I would add on though that the student should be reached out to as quickly as possible in some form (just so that they know the team wants reconciliation / values their perspective), since otherwise that time period might be long enough for the student to commit to quitting.

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People who don’t deserve leadership shouldn’t be entitled to it in my opinion. Explain to the kid that he can still be a leader without an official position, and that other students will respect him if he performs his role on the team outstandingly and helps others learn and grow.

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The notion of “deserving” leadership might be really fuzzy in OP’s case, since leadership selection was left entirely up to the mentors and done in private. The student might’ve even qualified for leadership, but just had competition that was too stiff. The student certainly thought they qualified for it, so I’d wait for the OP to clarify more on the situation before jumping to criticize the kid. The issue at hand could just as easily be a lack of transparency, feedback, guidelines, etc. or even a straight-up miscommunication from the team on how to qualify / be selected for leadership.

I’ve seen several students get upset before because they didn’t get a leadership position, and I wouldn’t characterize any of them as particularly entitled; they had valid concerns or misunderstandings about the process that the teams involved needed to address, and which several times led to beneficial/productive reforms. If a student is so upset and blindsided over the leadership selection that they want to quit, IMO it’s more of a red flag on the selection process’s part than the student’s.

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On my (admittedly small and new) team we came up with a way for leadership to be appointed very openly and fairly. At the end of season, the seniors give input who they would like and why. Then, the students give input on the same. Candidates are “nominated” and then the most suitable one is selected openly by the mentor based on various criteria. The whole process is an open team process. This doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict. Two students both qualify for overall team captain next year for example, and so the final decision was cocaptains. If someone doesn’t like that they’re not given a position, they have an opportunity to suggest themselves and why they would be best for it. We always try to be very transparent on exactly why Johnny gets to be captain instead of Bob.

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I think the biggest problem here in this situation is a lack of communication and clear-cut qualifications for the leadership positions.

This season students applying for leadership positions on my team were required to complete a competency examination of the skills required to lead their desired subteam as well as a formal interview with myself and the previous subteam leaders.

After positions were decided and announced, I sent a personal email to each individual that was not selected as to why the selection committee did not pick them for the position they were applying for.

With enough transparency and communication, no one’s feelings or expectations should ever be hurt. We’re not playing favorites, we’re just selecting the best candidates for positions.

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I’m not going to bother to figure out the leadership structure of your team or whether or not the elections were fair or whatever because it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Here’s an answer to the question posed in the OP and nothing more.

Honest advice: Give them a couple days to process. People are emotional and rash in disappointment, that’s natural, just give them time to process. This isn’t a crisis, and it isn’t something that you need to fix right away.

In a few weeks or months, either they will have quit the team, or they won’t have. The team will go on either way, and so will they. If the leadership snub was enough to push them off the team, then they don’t have the same priorities and goals as the team, and that’s fine. If they calm down and decide that doing robotics is fine regardless of the titles they may or may not be given, then all is well.

If they’re specifically asking you for advice and reassurance in the meantime - you can tell them that leadership isn’t just about titles and authority, but about character and determination; that impact on a team is by no means limited to those bestowed with a role. If they want to contribute and the team isn’t completely dysfunctional, they’ll be given the space to do what they can for the robotics team. But again, this is only if they’re asking for advice - give them space to process.

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This. The discussion so far has been way to focused on how “bad” the selection process is. Everyone should take a step back for a second and look at what we actually know - 3 short posts from the OP.

I could get one of my students to describe our selection process, and it may not come off as much better.

There’s an application they fill out if they’re interested in being a captain, followed by an interview (for which they get no prep, no guidance as to what sort of questions to expect). There’s a poll of the entire team fills out, but it’s made very clear to everyone that the poll is used to inform the decision, it is not a decision itself. And then the mentors meet and make the decision - no students are involved in the actual decision-making meeting.

Moving on to other leadership roles… there’s a poll sent out for people to indicate interest in various roles, but after that the process is entirely opaque. An individual on the team has no idea who else may have indicated interest in the same roll(s), and they have no idea why the decisions were made they way they were.

When we let each person know the results, we make sure to tell them to let us know if they want to talk about it. In many cases, someone may have indicated interest in multiple positions and only gotten one, or they may have ended up as a “co-lead” when they expected to be doing the job solo. Or they may not have gotten a position, for various reasons. As mentors, we can’t address a situation like the OP described unless we actually know about it! A student can go home and rant and fume about the decision all they want… if they don’t bring it up with us, we aren’t going to be able to do anything about it.

Over the past 13 years, we’ve had cases where individuals weren’t selected for a position they thought they should get. In some cases, they’ve come to talk with us about it and we’ve worked through how best to keep them involved, engaged, and growing as an individual. In some cases, we’ve talked with them about what we need to see them improve on so they can get a leadership role in the future, and worked together to identify some concrete steps towards that goal. In others, they’ve disengaged, reducing their effort and attention within the team, and that sucks. I hate to see it happen, but ultimately there’s only so much we can do about it. And in a few cases, we’ve given people leadership positions in part because “it was expected”, and we’ve seen them fail at those positions. That’s even worse, as it impacts the experience of everyone on the team.

Now, to the OP’s question… Give the individual a chance to process it and think about what they want. I’ve been in a similar situation as a kid, and found that the initial impulse (to rant and rave and quit) often fades and can leave you, if not happy, then accepting and ready to work towards a better result next time.

Encourage them to talk to their mentors. In a perfect world, you’d be able to grab them and your mentors, stick them in a room, and help get the conversation started… but that’s a lot to put on your shoulders. It can be daunting and uncomfortable to talk to the mentors about this individuals displeasure, as it can feel like breaking trust with them and you could be concerned about their response when they find out you shared their reaction with the mentors. I get that, and I would never expect you to put yourself in that position… but if you’re comfortable with it, letting your mentors know there’s an issue can let them address it. Otherwise, all you can do is push your friend to talk to the mentors and get it all out on the table in a productive way - they may or may not take this advise. Ranting, threatening to quit, is not productive and is not going to go well for anyone. Going in and asking some questions like @EricH suggested is productive. I would add one more question at the end of what he had, though - Given that all of the positions are filled now, how can I exercise leadership and grow throughout the next year? Asking something like that makes the discussion forward looking, tells the mentors that they still want to be involved and grow, and puts the onus on the mentors to figure out how to keep them progressing.

Finally, none of us know your position within the team. If appropriate, it may make sense for you to broach the topic of improving your selection process - either with the mentors directly, or with students in leadership positions on the team. Asking people to express interest for rolls, keeping everything else the same, would give the mentors the opportunity to know who to talk to when selections were over to smooth over any hurt feelings. Such a discussion doesn’t even have to be about this individual or any specific circumstances. Keep in general, and keep it positive. It’s not about second guessing the decisions that were made or the people making them, it’s about keeping everyone on the team engaged and working towards improvement after those decisions are made!

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I was like this kid back in 2007 when I was passed up for team captain—thought I might quit the team. A good friend of mine talked me down, and I’m still involved in FIRST 12 years later. They just need someone to show them that they’re valued, and over time you learn you don’t need a leadership position to add value.

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I’m not going to assume how your team works, I think I’ve typed 3 or 4 responses and erased them all, but since you were the bearer of bad news and couldn’t answer the “Why wasn’t I picked?” question AND you saw the student’s reaction, it might be best if you talk to someone on the “selection committee” and ask them to help.

This is what I was going to recommend as well. If in a day or two they’ve calmed down and decided they want to stay on the team after all, they’ll probably feel a little embarrassed about their outburst and be glad it wasn’t escalated into a team crisis involving all the mentors and a detailed review of the way the team is run.

In situations like this, in the moment of the outburst, you can encourage them to talk to the mentors about it if they want to. The mentors can explain why this person wasn’t selected and give them advice on other ways to take on leadership/responsibility on the team. This would probably be good for them, but if they’d rather let it go and move on you should respect that. You can also offer them advice on making the most of their situation despite being disappointed, but if they just wanted to vent it may not be well received. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just lend a sympathetic ear, and let things work themselves out.