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How to Have That "Tough Conversation" with a Problematic Employee

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

If you're a manager who feels that they spend 80% of their time dealing with 20% of their team members then you’re not alone!

We’ve all been there.

A time in every leader, manager or supervisor’s life when all you thought you knew about leading and managing people goes out of the window...

You’re faced with the employee who, for all intents and purposes, appears to be unmanageable.

This is the individual who...

  • doesn’t want to do as they are asked, or who

  • agrees to do as they’re asked but fails to deliver, or who, more astonishingly,

  • presents an alternate version of what was agreed to and tries to pass it off as perfectly acceptable.

Those who think management is easy have evidently never had this employee assigned to them!

But before we go on let’s dispel a myth now...

None of these employee examples we’ve spoke about is truly unmanageable.

In my twenty-five years of managing teams and developing other managers I have met very few employees who are unrepentantly unmanageable.

In fact, thinking of these individuals in such a manner is unfairly demonizing them – and unfairly positioning yourself as a victim or martyr.

It’s unlikely (though not impossible) that you have an employee who is intentionally refusing to deliver, failing to deliver of changing the rules of the game for the sole purpose of making your life miserable.

If that is the case then what you actually have is not an “unmanageable” employee but a sociopathic one...

If you suspect that this is what you’re dealing with then I’ll refer you to The Sociopath Next Door, by clinical psychologist and former Harvard faculty member Martha Stout, PhD.

For the rest of us, a much more valuable perspective is to separate the behaviour of our “unmanageable employees” from them as individuals.

Viewing your employees as well-intentioned colleagues who are trapped in a cycle of exhibiting a behaviours or group of behaviours that need to be addressed sets you up for success because:

  1. it builds empathy: once you view them as colleagues who need assistance you can reframe yourself someone in a position to help

  2. you can build a list of actual problems to address to

  3. can enroll your employees as partners in instituting behavioral change

  4. you can cooperate in building an action plan that sets them up for success.

This simple paradigm shift is essential to move forward into a positive working relationship with this manager-employee relationship.

Let’s look at the situation from their perspective for a moment...

Consider if you or other managers have actually pointed out to the employee that their behavior is unacceptable. More often than not, when poor behaviour is tolerated for any period of time, it becomes the norm.

Indeed, it may be that the organizational culture that surrounds this employee encourages the problem behaviour and that, from the employee’s perspective, “everyone is doing it”.

Consider if you or another manager have explained the consequences of the poor behaviour. It’s possible that the employee knows that they are missing deadlines or producing sloppy work, but in their mind it may not be an issue...

They may feel that the work is still getting done, or no one is looking at it anyway, or it affects only themselves.

In the case of an employee who is perpetually late...

For example, they may not be aware that the earlier shift cannot leave until they arrive and as a result another employee is consistently late to pick up her child from daycare which has financial repercussions.

Consider if the employee has been managed properly in the past. They may have been allowed far more slack in their previous position because their previous manager had different standards, was ineffectual or simply was too frightened to have the difficult conversation that you now find yourself faced with.

What choices lie before you in terms of dealing with this Unmanageable employee?

First let’s look at what NOT to do.

A manager’s response to this person can sometimes to fall into one of these unhelpful responses:

  • Avoid – carrying on as usual and hoping the person changes or the problem goes away. This rarely works as the person is still there and the problem normally gets worse and can affect others in the team. In fact, this is not only unhelpful, it’s grossly unfair to the employee because eventually things will get to the point where this employee will be summarily fired. The employee will then be well within her rights to complain to you that “you never told me there was a problem!” In fact, you could find yourself faced with a costly union grievance or lawsuit for wrongful dismissal.

  • Move moving, transferring or promoting the person to another team. This is a strategy used more often than one would like to think. It is the ultimate example of what those in my native England call “slopey shoulders”; letting the problem roll off one’s back and into another manager’s lap. As a manager I have been on the receiving end of this approach, a fact that I’ve been only too happy to take up with the exporting manager who has now passed their problem employee to me.

  • Attack – the tendency go into a conversation with all guns blazing, hoping that the shear force of the argument will compel the employee to change their ways. Let’s be clear that we’re not speaking of a physical attack, but rather a verbal or emotional one. Too often a manager can mistake “violent communication” for “tough love”. Certainly, its valuable to ensure that you are candid and frank; but an attack is certain to trigger a fight or flight response. The attack strategy tends to end either with an angry exchange or with the employee making a complaint about their manager.

There really is only one tried and true strategy that lies before you when dealing with the unmanageable employee...

Have the conversation...

But how?

For many managers having the conversation is daunting enough that makes “avoid” or “move” seem like more attractive options. Faced without any real battle plan or structure to follow, we often default to attack mode when under pressure.

In our workshop Managing The Unmanageable, we offer the B.E.E.F. model that you can use to structure your conversation.

Behaviour: Tell them exactly what the problem behaviour is.

Remember that this may be the first time that anyone has pointed out to them that this behaviour is inappropriate!

Or they may have fooled themselves into thinking that it is appropriate because no one has called them on it.

It may take time for this new information to sink in...

To help them out:

  • Introduce the problem with a clear statement

  • Be specific on what the issue is

  • Select the most important issue and deal with that first

Remember also that, in order to avoid triggering a flight or fight response, it is key to keep the conversation focused on the problem and not to inadvertently stray into making the conversation about them as the individuals...

This is harder than it sounds and requires discipline from you.

Avoid charged phrases such as “you are not measuring up” or “this is unacceptable”;

Avoid shortcuts like “you’re slacking off” and continue to paint he full picture:

for example, “when you left the work unfinished it left the project in jeopardy because …”

Avoiding a reference to emotion at this stage, especially the emotions of others who are not present.

For example “you offended Dianne when you made that comment” can allow the employee to debate the impact of the comment and Dianne’s reaction. This kind of comment is likely to be met with “well, she never said anything to me about it.”

Examples: Offer your employee specific examples of their behaviour.

It's not effective to state that “sometimes you submit work that is not up to snuff” without being able to back it up.

This may require some homework on your part, going through past reports, looking at samples of their work or interviewing others to get the complete picture.

In this situation, of course, you are likely to be met by any number of deflections, excuses or reasons why the substandard work is not the fault of the employee.

You may find that they make excuses and rationalize, take the offensive and strike back or become passive and withdrawn.

These defensive or resistant reactions often make managers uncomfortable; that’s okay.

You need to learn to sit in that discomfort and not seek an easy solution, take blame on yourself or accept an easy out.

Some key tips that can help in this situation:

  • Concentrate on the reaction of the person

  • Try to defuse resistance by not reacting yourself

  • Drop your own agenda temporarily and focus on the reaction you are presented with: don’t make matters worse by pressing on with further points before the one your discussing has been accepted and acknowledged

  • Look for mutual understanding, by asking “what do we currently agree on?”

  • Use your listening and questioning skills to understand the other person and, even more importantly, demonstrate that you are seeing understanding; and

  • Don’t be afraid to say something more than once; often challenging information needs to be reframed and repeated in order to be accepted.

Effect: Return the conversation as often as possible to the effect that the employees actions have.

You can shape the effect by looking at any one, or all, of the following:

  • The effect on others. It’s easier for an employee to claim that he is late because he is a victim of the bus schedule; but its much harder for them to dispute that, since Dianne can’t leave until he arrives, he is making it impossible for her to pick up her child from daycare on time and causing her to pay extra fees in unnecessary overtime care. Most everyone is concerned for their team members and has a basic desire to be accepted, liked and acknowledged by them.

  • The impact on the company’s bottom line. The employee’s actions can be framed in terms of monetary loss, to putting the project behind, or to the company’s reputation. But it also urges them to think of their actions in terms of the broader strategic plan or long term vision of the company.

  • The effect on themselves. For some employees this is more effective than appeals to altruistism or impact on business strategy. Be careful not to view this as selfishness or evidence of a Machiavellian employee, because it might cause you to withdraw or pass judgment on your employee. Even a subconscious response such as this on your part can be read in body language or tone. It's much more helpful to think of appealing to your employee’s “enlightened self interest” and to think of yourself as their helpful mentor.

Discussion of the effect often leads organically into the final “future” phase and open up the possibility of co-creating a solution.

Future: Once the employee has accepted that there is a problem with an effect on others, then it's time for them look for help in co-creating a future plan of action.

This is where you can begin coaching them.

Note that we haven’t recommended any coaching prior to this point in the conversation.

In my opinion, you can’t coach someone who doesn’t even accept that there is a problem.

You must first identify the problem, get them to agree that there is a problem before you can being to take them through any coaching model.

There are any number of coaching models you can turn to at this phase, but here are some key factors for you to consider to get you started:

1. Clear roles, team leadership and individual ownership.

People struggle to be accountable when roles and processes are ambiguous.

Removing as much confusion as possible about who is doing what and how they will proceed is an important step.

2. A sense of ownership for team results.

How is the team working toward goals and outcome? Do they feel 100 percent accountable to improving the process?

Each member should have the obligation to seek information, give and receive feedback and point out the need for corrective action at any time.

3. Freedom, support and control to navigate competing priorities.

Most problems have multiple right answers, so give people the freedom and control they need to make decisions.

Support is the key – be sure people have the resources, knowledge and assistance they need.

4. It’s not about punishment.

If your goal in fostering accountability is to know who to punish when revenue targets are not met or budgets are missed, you will only succeed in creating fear.

No one will be willing to step up, speak out or try something new. Innovation and risk taking will be lost.

5. It’s about improvement.

If you want sustainable high-quality processes, you need to be able to see what’s working and what isn’t – and analyze the cause.

To that end, each person needs to honestly say what they knew, what they thought and what they did (or didn’t do).

6. The expectation of evaluation.

In accountable organizations, no one expects to “stay under the radar.”

In fact, people seek feedback because they know it is intended to improve the process and add to their knowledge.

Using the B.E.E.F. model allows you to use the conversation to identify a specific problem related to performance and not attack them as individuals in a way that threatens their self-worth.

As a result you are much more likely to be able to position the conversation so that you gain their commitment to address problem.

In short, if handled correctly, you can get the unmanageable employee to identify ways they can correct the problem themselves so that they do the heavy lifting for you.

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