Handling the Loose Cannon
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Handling the Loose Cannon

Have you ever dealt with a “Loose Cannon?”  He or she can be one of the most dangerous threats to your career.  Simply defined, the Loose Cannon on your team is the person who is apt to do anything or say anything that causes devastating and immediate damage to your team.  Their blasts don’t come from behind enemy lines–they fire at point blank from within, right at you and your team.

Often the Loose Canon doesn’t give you a hint of what they are capable of doing to you.  Their biggest advantage is the surprise blast you never saw coming–suddenly dead and wounded are lying all around.

Profile of the Loose Cannon

The Loose Cannon is often articulate, knowledgeable, well groomed, and seemingly insightful. All too often he/she is hired into the organization on the recommendation of someone higher up in management and the “Loose Cannon” comes in feeling they are wired at the top of the organization and invulnerable, able to bypass you and anyone else.

You’re often impressed the first time you meet the Loose Cannon, but you may have a few alarm bells that are going off in the back of your head.  Perhaps it’s the remark about the boss from previous employment who “just didn’t get it,” or the culture of the last organization that was “so toxic.”

They don’t necessarily come across as a trouble maker, and you’re telling yourself you’re just “making it up” when you wonder if there’s not something here you need to watch.

The Plot Thickens with the Loose Cannon

Here’s the scenario with the Loose Cannon:  The team is meeting to discuss launching a new product in Q2 2020.  The team has two options, you explain.

Option 1 is a product that fulfills a strong market need, sells  quickly and creates needed revenue, but is much more expensive to develop and carries the risk of delays.

Option 2 is cheaper to produce, can be developed quickly, but faces stiff competition in a flooded market with that product.

In an open discussion with your team, the majority lean toward Option 1, the slower product to develop.  The disadvantages of that option are thoroughly discussed, but the consensus is that it’s the best option.

The Loose Cannon is strongly against the majority of team thinking.  He says the difficulties of Option 2 are greatly overstated, and that the product will handily beat the large number of competitors.  We just need to execute correctly, he tells the team, and he has great knowledge and experience in that area.

You feel the team is right and declare that Option 1 will be where the team commits.  The Loose Cannon seems amicable to the decision of the team, and everyone leaves the meeting on good terms.

Later that afternoon after your meeting you get an email from a member of your team who said little in the meeting. The Loose Cannon, by chance, stopped by her office to say that he believes the team is making a grave error that will be a disaster, and that perhaps the team should reconsider.  He tells her that the inexperience of team leadership makes him question the team leader’s ability–that’s you.

Later on you get a call from your boss’ boss asking why there is so much chaos and dissention in your team, citing that the Loose Cannon has been “talking to a lot of people.”  The next day you get an email from a member of the board of directors saying that when he talked to the Loose Cannon, who happens to be a longtime friend of his,  he said that you were entirely dismissive of the Loose Cannon’s ideas, to the point of being abusive.

A Happy Ending–this Time

The story ends well.  You are fortunate that you have a great relationship with your boss, and have kept her informed on the way you’re leading the team.  She has a lot of respect for you, and is totally in agreement with you, your process, and the decision of the team.  She has talked with the CEO, who incidentally got an email from the Loose Cannon from out of the blue, suggesting that you, as manager, should be removed from the project.

Acting on the recommendation of your boss, the CEO has immediately removed the Loose Cannon from the team and you don’t even have to say goodbye to him.   Career wise, this would definitely be called a close call for you.  If events had fallen a bit to the other side, you would have been looking for a job.

Here are the takeaways from this story:

  1. All Too Often You Can’t Anticipate the Loose Cannon.  They left their last job on good terms, although in hindsight something similar is rumored to have happened.
  2. It’s Difficult to Sound the Early Alarm on Loose Cannons.  If you begin to work against them early and immediately you will often appear as defensive and squashing people and ideas.
  3. The First Manifestation of the Loose Cannon is Their Lack of Boundaries and Respect for Others.  At this point your best strategy is to mostly observe and note their actions.  Their lack of boundaries is a danger to you and the team, but the fact they don’t have boundaries makes it fairly certain they’ll “overplay their hand” to the extent that people start to catch on to them.
  4. Loose Cannons are Always Somewhere on the Narcissistic Scale–Negotiating Seldom Works. Since they believe the world revolves around them and that they are always right, they see their interests as being the only interests that matter.
  5. Personal Credibility and Team Solidarity is the Best Strategy to Survive the Loose Cannon.  In order to survive the Loose Cannon, you need to be sure that your decision making process is solid and has a track record of good results.  You need to cultivate and maintain the trust of your organization, your bosses, and your team.  The Loose Cannon thrives on an ineffective team.

Fortunately, you don’t often meet Loose Cannons in an organization.  They most often flame out in some other part of the organization before they arrive near you.  Almost everyone, however, will at some point in their career, encounter the attack of the Loose Cannon.  An effective strategy with quick action is the key.  Most often the Loose Cannon will take themselves down, but without the proper action, they can take you down with them.

Austin, Texas

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Carol Kallendorf, PhD. | (512) 417-9756 

Jack Speer | (512) 417-9428


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