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    Sooner or later, it will happen: You will be asked to manage a staff of people who, for some reason, consider you the Antichrist before they’ve even met you. Maybe they’re still mourning the departure of a beloved boss, or you’re coming from a different department and they resent it. Or maybe they’re just a headstrong, ornery crew with a healthy dislike for authority. Why did you think the job was open?

    In 1995, Carl Friedrich was asked to manage a crab pot of cantankerous physicians for New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery. You must grasp the degree of difficulty here: doctors are a lone-wolf breed accustomed to playing God, and they don’t take orders well. In this case, Mr. Friedrich laments, each of the doctors did things differently and were as resistant to change as a hardy new bacterial strain. "It was like trying to merge twenty little businesses at once," he says.

    Moreover, Mr. Friedrich started with three strikes against him: he was an outsider, a non-physician, and a soon-to-be MBA holder all blood-red flags for set-in-their-ways hospital veterans.

    Now there’s a real test of your managerial skills. What do you do? Here’s what Mr. Friedrich did, and while the health care business may be idiosyncratic, the leadership lessons he learned are universal.

    First, he assessed his staff’s perception of him. "There was a lot of myth about what my intentions were," he says. "I was thought to be a cost cutter, someone who would tell them no."

    How to Manage a Hostile Crew at the work place In fact, while he didn’t consider himself a hatchet man, Mr. Friedrich did have ambitious plans to improve operations. Based on this assessment, though, he wisely backed away from his staff initially. He had to win their trust and confidence before he could hope to sell them on major, life-changing programs. "The biggest mistake someone in my role can make is trying to produce the master plan," he says. "You’re asking too much of people to try to change that quickly."

    He instead opted for less controversial efforts sure to show a quick return. It wasn’t difficult, for example, to convince the doctors to combine supplies purchasing to earn bigger discounts. That was something everyone understood, and the subsequent profit gains earned him some brownie points.

    So he trotted out a proposal to consolidate their billing operations, which he considered a surefire and noncontroversial money saver. But when it came to their precious financial records, the doctors dug in their heels, smelling a managed care cost-cutting effort. Plus, they were reluctant to share information with each other. "I was getting into shouting matches with physicians about things that other businessmen would laugh about," Mr. Friedrich says.

    Rather than forcing the issue, Mr. Friedrich formed a billing consortium and then lobbied the doctors, one by one, to join. He spent a year cajoling one stubborn clinician. She finally acceded and found that more accurate and efficient billing boosted her revenues by 40 percent and shrank her costs 30 percent. Naturally, she became a big fan of the system, and soon others started joining.

    How to Manage a Hostile Crew at the work place Mr. Friedrich also sought to assure his physicians that he wasn’t some arrogant, MBA ideologue trying to turn them into medical mechanics who no longer had decision-making authority. "I told them I wouldn’t force anything on them that compromised them as physicians," he says.

    Where some managers would have simply chosen the lowest-cost suppliers, Mr. Friedrich offered them options to make them feel they still had clout in the operation. "You try to give them options, but limit the options," he says.

    He allowed two medical groups with different billing software to keep their own systems, as long as they met minimum performance standards he set. When one group’s software couldn’t meet the standards, 90 percent of them switched.

    The most important management skill he learned, however, was shutting up and listening. By doing so, he discovered that most of his doctors’ complaints weren’t really directed at him. "They just want to tell it to someone," he says. "They want someone to be their advocate."

    Consider the physician who complained about a shabby sign that he felt was conveying a negative image of the hospital. With all that was going on, a run-down sign seemed a low-priority item to Mr. Friedrich. When it hadn’t been replaced a month later, however, the physician exploded at a staff meeting. "The issue seemed trivial to me, but it was critical to him," Mr. Friedrich says.

    It wasn’t so much the importance of the issue as the physician’s feeling that his concerns weren’t considered important. Spending the few minutes necessary to order a new sign would have prevented an ugly incident.

    By not taking care of the little things, he wasn’t winning the trust he needed to accomplish the big things. "If they think you don’t care, they won’t listen to the bold plan you have," he says.

    And no matter how compelling those plans are and how brilliant you are as a manager, it will all come to naught if the staff stays hostile.