Both in our corporate workshops and our recently published book 'I Need To F***ing Talk To You - The Art Of Navigating Difficult Workplace Conversations', my co-author Ken Cameron and I pose the question 'Are people really Unmanageable?' Even the most disagreeable or truculent of our employees or co-workers, are they really 'Unmanageable'?
What follows is an extract from our book where we consider this specific point....
Before we proceed any further let’s dispel a myth now; there
is no such thing as an employee who is truly unmanageable.
Thinking of these individuals as “fxxxing unmanageable”,
is unfairly demonizing them, and unfairly positioning yourself
as a victim or martyr. It may feel good, but it rarely positions
you as a strong and reliable leader.
Russell begins almost every one of our Forum Theatre for
Business workshops by saying “I’ll let you in on a secret. In
my twenty-five years of managing teams and developing
other managers, I have realized that most people want to
do a good job.”
We usually have at least one participant who responds with
“You need to come to my workplace.”
You might be having the same thoughts. There are some people
who are inherently lazy, who are naturally disaffected, who are
just so fxxxing antagonistic that they’re impossible to work
with and I’ve been stuck with one of them. This person
is beyond hope.
If that is the case, put this book down and go ahead and
fire them. It will be easier and less painful in the long run.
Before you say, HR would never allow it or the union would
make my life miserable or they’re the boss’s favourite, consider
the possibility that you’re lying to yourself. If their behaviour
truly is unmanageable, you can figure it out.
Ask yourself, was this problematic employee lazy, or disaffected
or antagonistic when they started at the organization?
Most employees develop their behaviour over time, as a response
to some dissatisfaction or disillusionment with their
work. They may have been mistreated in the past and are
now distrustful. They may have good ideas, but they’ve been
worn down because no one listens or they view the structures
and systems as needlessly cumbersome. All of this can
usually be boiled down to a reaction against change.
Resistance to change is another precursor to difficult behaviour.
When we say “change” we mean any sort of deviation
from the way things were. This could be extreme like a complete
re-organization or it could be as simple as introducing
a new computer program for tracking inventory. Other examples
could be a change in the individual’s workstation,
or the addition of a new team member.
People respond to change in different ways. Some embrace
change with an enthusiastic “YES” and feel energized, challenged
and renewed. Others respond with an outright “NO” and feel drained,
challenged and dispirited. Between these two poles, there is an infinite
spectrum of response.
Once you uncover and understand the change they are reacting
against, you may find you can empathize with them.
Empathizing with your employee makes the conversation
easier. It makes them better listeners and it makes YOU a
Recently Ken mentored briefly under Peter Hinton, a brilliant
theatre director who served for many years as Artistic Director
of The National Arts Centre of Canada. Peter claimed
that he doesn’t believe in “talent”. There is a prevailing belief
in society that talent is some inherent mysterious force;
you either have it or you don’t. The Ancient Greeks and
Roman societies even believed talent was a gift from the
gods. But this idea is dangerously false and even destructive.
“If we assume that some actors have talent and others
don’t,” Peter explains, “then there’s nothing a director can
do for them. I might as well give up.”
Instead, Peter is one of those who chooses to believe that
everyone has talent. “Some actors simply have something
that blocks them, some internal obstacle that gets in their
way. This allows me to assist them by investigating what
those obstacles might be. When we uncover it together, I
can aid them in removing those blocks so their talent can
By the same reasoning, if you suppose that some employees
“just fit in”, while others simply “aren’t team players”, then
there is nothing you can do to coach them. You might as well
give up now and begin the process of firing them. And
what kind of leader does that make you?
If, on the other hand, you begin to think of your employee
as temporarily experiencing a behaviour that is getting in
the way of their ability to do a good job, then possibilities
for great performance emerge.
Here’s what you need to do. Separate the behaviour from
the individual. And here’s why you need to do it.
• It builds empathy. Reframe your unmanageable
employee as a colleague who needs support. Then you
can reframe yourself as someone who can help.
• It’s constructive. Behaviours are tangible. Now you can
generate a list of actual problems to address.
• It’s engaging. Build an action plan that sets them up for
success. Their self-interest will get them engaged.
• It’s participatory. When you view them as someone with
the potential to transform, you enrol them as partners in
Once you separate the individual from the behaviour, you
can begin to view your employees as well-intentioned colleagues
who are trapped in a cycle that needs to be addressed.
If you enjoyed that extract regarding navigating those difficult workplace conversations, why not check out my new book, written with Ken Cameron.
"Sometimes conversations suck, but you need to have them, and this book lays out how. Russell and Ken have put together and road-tested simple, up-front, and thoughtful approaches to awkward and difficult workplace conversations."
Andrew Phung, CBC's Kim's Convenience
You can now order copies of our book here.
I hope you found this blog useful as you continue your leadership journey, don't forget that here at Bluegem Learning we are always here to assist you.
Well that's it for this week. I hope you enjoyed the blog and I'll be back next week with more, until then ... be a leader not just a boss!