Managing Problem Employees

If you’ve led a team of people…in any capacity…then you have already experienced one of the toughest aspects of managing, and that is: a team member who just isn’t getting it done.  Maybe they’re unhappy with their assignment, or they generally have a bad attitude.  Maybe they mean well and try hard but just keep making mistakes, or maybe they are just incompetent in every way.  The point is…they are a problem, and they are hurting your team, your company, and…your career.

Now you know what to do, right?  Everybody knows what to do.  Just get rid of them and move on!  But it’s not quite that easy.  In the corporate world, you face plenty of barriers that make that difficult. HR policies that require documentation. Hiring freezes that will keep you from getting a replacement, or simply your own sensibilities that are keeping you from making that decision.  

And the fact is, sometimes it’s not the right thing to just to exit the person immediately. Every circumstance is different and every team member deserves a fair shot at responding to feedback and being their best.  It’s your job as a leader to get the best out of the team, to achieve the business goals in front of you, and to do that in a way that is respectful and creates a long-term sustainable culture.  Indiscriminately firing every person that screws up or rubs you the wrong way isn’t going to accomplish those objectives,  but neither is ignoring the problem….hoping it goes away…or passing the problem along to your successor.

So what do you do?  What’s the middle ground?  Is there a process or a mindset for consistently dealing with a challenging personnel situation that allows you to be fair to the employee, to yourself, and to the company at the same time?  The answer is YES, and that’s what we’ll discuss as we progress through the course.  Here are the key topics we’ll cover:

  • Determining why there is an issue.  What exactly is happening with this team member and why are they a problem?  That will often dictate the steps you take.
  • How to be 100% transparent with the affected employee, and why that is important.
  • Creating a process of consistent follow-up with the team member.  You can’t state the problem one time and then hope it goes away.
  • Eventually, you have to make a decision on how to go forward.  We’ll talk about all the considerations.
  • Communicating to the individual, your bosses, and maybe to the team…on the decision you’ve made, why you’ve made it, and how to move forward.

Before you decide how to DEAL with a personnel issue, you need to figure out what’s CAUSING the issue.  Why is this person not succeeding?  Why are they not getting the job done the way it needs to get done?  Why are YOU feeling unsatisfied with their performance?  In my experience, there are 4 basic causes of under-performance.  The first is capability.  Does this person have the fundamental knowledge, experience, or horsepower to get the job done in the way you expect?  The second cause is style.  Perhaps they get the job done, but in a way that is somehow disruptive to the company, the team, the partners, or the customers. The third is desire.  The person does a nice job when they are engaged.  But keeping them motivated is an issue.  And finally, there is decision-making or event-specific performance issues.  The team member does well…until they don’t.  Issues just pop up out of nowhere that are unexplainable…but it keeps happening.

Each cause requires a slightly different approach from your perspective as a leader and manager.  Let’s go through each one and illustrate with a real example on how you might address the challenge in an appropriate way.

You have an understanding of what is causing the performance issue with your team member.  Now what?  Admit what you may be thinking…the easiest solution is to hope this just goes away.  They take another job.  You take another job.  It was a temporary issue.  Maybe it’s not so bad.  Maybe nobody will notice.  If you have any of these thoughts…just know that it’s normal.  But also know, these thoughts have to stay just that…thoughts.  Because you need to take action.  You need to tackle the problem head-on.  This is not going away most likely.  Rarely, if ever, are things going to magically get better.  And every day you let the issues drag on, is a day that your team underperforms. So summon the courage, and start getting ready.

At some point, the time will come.  You need to make a call. If you’ve done your job properly to this point…specifying the issues and expectations, providing transparent feedback on a consistent basis…making the call should be easy.  You’ve laid out objective performance goals that, if not black and white, are pretty darn close.  So did they meet those goals or not?  There should really be no debate.  Have they corrected the specific issues you highlighted in a meaningful way that is visible to you, them, and others around them?  Are they now at a point, where not only are they adequate, but they are contributing in a meaningful, positive way to your team and your business?  Do they represent the best you can do, at least in the moment?

If so, congrats!  You have pulled off a rare feat in the corporate world.  The rehabilitation of a team member who was failing.  Through your coaching and patience, and their self-awareness and hard work, there is a happy ending to the story…and hopefully a strong business and long successful career as a result.

Make sure you tell them that.  Show them with your words…that you appreciate all the work they’ve done.  Be specific about the improvements you’ve noticed.  Let them know when the formal evaluation period is over….so they can feel a sense of accomplishment and relief.  And complement the positive words with actions.  Don’t be afraid to give them important projects, or extend trust in other ways.  You have to believe they have improved.  You can’t keep treating them as if they aren’t capable.  That’s not fair to them or you.  Of course, you still have to monitor and measure their performance like everyone else.  And that’s the point…you need to treat them like everyone else…not different, or better, or worse.  In the back of your mind, you may be looking for signs that the old bad habits are popping up.  But keep that to yourself…unless it happens.

At the same time, make sure that the right people in your orbit KNOW that the team member has met the challenge.  Is your manager familiar with the situation?  Give them a positive update.  How about your HR partner…or the executive in charge of the group…or your peers.  It’s important to spread the word about a successful outcome.  And be as specific if possible.  Here’s why it’s critical.  In the absence of this communication, everyone will assume that nothing has changed.  The same old stories will circulate about this person as a problem, or a poor performer…even with evidence to the contrary.  The people around you may simply assume that you have failed to deal with the problem, or have become satisfied with a mediocre (or worse) performer on your team.  It takes a lot of work to change negative perceptions.  But you owe it to yourself and your employee to start that process.  Try to get them a clean slate.  Otherwise, the “ghost of poor performance past” will haunt their career and prevent them from getting future opportunities. 

To learn more about what Jay Parker and other mentors have to say about managing a team, visit Mentorforce University or Mentorforce.

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