Susan C Foster

How To Turn Around A Difficult Employee

– Posted in: Leadership, stress management, Team Building



depositphotos_13241650-Portrait-Of-Sad-Business-TeamMy direct report, Jane, was the manager of a budget of several million dollars.  She came to me several times about her employee, Steve, who was a constant source of irritation on her team.  I found myself listening to her stories, and one day I challenged her to tell me exactly what the issue was.  Jane told me that Steve was disruptive with the other team members, did not do tasks as she had told him to, and was always late on deadlines.

One of my core beliefs, as stated in my book, “It’s Not Rocket Science: Leading, Inspiring, and Motivating Your Team to Be Their Best,” is that most employees want to do a good job, and believe they are.  As I say, “99% of my employees don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘Let me see how I can ruin Susan’s day today.’”

Leaders find, however, during their career, every now and then they will have an employee who just doesn’t fit in.  The employee may be talented, and just not be a good fit for this particular team.  Or their performance could be below standards, although they are nice people.  Either way, leaders must deal with this problem sooner rather than later.

Here’s what I encourage my clients to ask themselves:

  1. What have I done to ensure that roles and expectations have been clearly stated and understood?  When I asked Jane how she had clarified Steve’s role, she realized she had given him mediocre tasks because she was angry.  Additionally, she had pulled him off a project because she needed his expertise on a different team.  She had not explained either one to him.  When she later talked with him, he admitted he didn’t feel a part of either team, and didn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to complete his work on his former team.  Her employee felt minimized, and unduly punished for something and he didn’t know what.
  2. Situational leadership: how much does this person need in coaching, teaching, or just encouragement?  Some employees are fairly new and inexperienced.  They need teaching until they learn their duties, then some coaching along the way and until they are comfortable with more responsibilities. Some are very experienced and just need a manager to remove obstacles and check in with them occasionally to see how they are on track.  And a whole array in between.  Knowing where each person is on your team will help you get the most out of each one of them.  Your employee could be disruptive because they need additional training or structure, or your employee could feel that he is being micromanaged, and that no one is giving him an opportunity to show what he can do.
  3. Have I talked with my employee frankly about the situation? Jane had been telling me often how unhappy she was with Steve, but she had not told him.  “He should know,” she said.  I’m sure he did, but he possibly didn’t know exactly why.  An employee should never, never find out these things at performance appraisal time—they should always be dealt with along the way, and every attempt made to turn it around.  When Jane sat down and made time to have regular meetings with Steve, they were able to work through the differences, and Jane gained a stellar employee.

There are occasions where this won’t be successful. Only after a leader looks at him or herself to see how they are contributing to their employees’ performance can you move forward to moving or dismissing an employee because they aren’t a good fit for your organization.

What are your experiences with difficult employees and how did you handle them?

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