I think that the key message here – the one thing to always remember is that your staff is watching you. They are especially watching how you deal with problems. In this case I specifically mean the problem children in your organization. Every manager knows what I mean. It is almost assured that you will have at least one employee that has problems – sometimes these issues are minor and other times they can be severe. They might be the one that always needs to be right and will steamroller anyone who disagrees with them, they might be the person who is extremely needy and always wants attention, they could be the person who goes around you and panders to executives or senior management. If you are lucky, they are the one who didn’t get the training to do their job successfully but they really want to learn.
Sometimes if you are really busy, you might not notice the problem right away. Someone on your staff will though. If you have a new team, or if you are new to the organization you need to figure out what the problems are – and for credibility you need to do it pretty fast. Listen to your staff to figure them out. Your employees will tell you when problems crop up. If they don’t tell you make sure to ask questions to figure out what the issues are.
Once you figure out what is going on, bring the issues to the light of day as soon as possible. This isn’t the time to wait until a performance review. Yes, that is easier, yes they might change. Do not surprise an employee during a review meeting. It will not go well.
A number of years ago I had a high performing employee who became a problem child. When I first hired him he went above and beyond and did a really stellar job. He was a great leader, a strong contributor and a capable mentor of more junior engineers. Over time, he became disenchanted with the company. At one point he went head to head with our CEO in an all hands meeting – and it didn’t go well. This really was the start of a long downward spiral. As time went by his performance went down. He didn’t engage with the other teams, he didn’t meet his deliverables, he started “working from home” a lot but he really didn’t get much done. I still had a fantasy in my head that he’d go back to being who he once was. When it came to review time, the review I gave him was a nasty surprise. He was very upset. It was ugly. I think he knew that he was coasting, but I think he believed that no one noticed. When it came down to it, we offered him a performance improvement plan or a severance package. It should never have come to that. I should have addressed the issues earlier. After he left, one of the other senior engineers on the product came up to me and told me that should have happened a long time ago. Interestingly enough, I never told the team about the performance problems that he had. THEY KNEW. They were expecting me to do something and I didn’t.
People can’t fix what they don’t know about. Sometimes people are blind to their shortcoming, and even if they are not, they need to be made aware that those shortcomings are affecting their ability to do their job. If you don’t get to it quickly the problem will fester. It will become a bigger and bigger issue and by the time you decide to address it, it will be too late.
The best managers will provide an opportunity for course correction. This doesn’t mean continual criticism, what it means is thoughtful accurate suggestions combined with encouragement. Most people want to do a better job and constructive feedback will help them improve. I once had a manager reporting to me who was an amazing people person. He got along very well with his team and he always knew where their minds were at. What he didn’t know was the overall status of the project. He had a lot of anxiety associated with figuring out where that was. Because he was such a good people person he was afraid that concentrating on schedules and milestones would rob him of what he really enjoyed about his job and that he would just twiddle schedules in his office all day. It took a while to get through to him but once he realized that a schedule was a communication tool he really became engaged. This really improved his effectiveness. I think at first he thought that I was trying to find a scapegoat in my organization – you know – a new manager comes in and they want to make an example of someone on the team. That fear make him pretty resistant to change, but once he realized that I was really trying to help him so that he could get to the next level his perception and our relationship changed dramatically.
Regardless of the type of problem that you are dealing with the best way to handle issues it to treat the person with empathy. This means, put yourself in their position. Recognize what they are feeling. Acknowledge it, and work with them to find the best way to address the issue together. It is difficult for many people to receive feedback. It is even more difficult for them to hear it and act on it when they are defensive. Empathy will help break down that defensiveness.
Sometimes you will get to the point where you have exhausted your options and the person you are dealing with cannot do their job successfully for one reason or another. At this point you need to realize that you are dealing with a “lost cause” and GIVE UP! You need to minimize the damage to the organization. Trust your gut. I am sure that you have been in this situation. You wake up in the morning and you feel sick to your stomach because you don’t want to have to deal with the impact of this individual on the team. Don’t let that sick feeling last for weeks or months. You intuition will tell you when you reach this state and you need to act on it rather than ignore it. There are a few different scenarios that typically arise when you are at this point:
Sometimes you will have someone on your staff that just cannot manage the work that is assigned to them. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t smart, it is just that the position they are in doesn’t suit their aptitude. Training and coaching didn’t change this. If you’ve spent the time ensuring that the person got the resources needed to be trained, and they still are not able to do the job, maybe it is time to find them another job. If you didn’t provide them the training – then shame on you. People need some guidance to do a job properly especially if they have never done it before. Just because something is obvious to you, doesn’t mean that it will be obvious to someone who has never done it before. When I was a team lead I worked with someone who was a junior engineer. I spent more than a year patiently reviewing code, explaining designs and helping her anyway that I could. After about 6 months I realized that she wasn’t ever going to get it and I kept telling my manager that we needed to do something about her. Unfortunately they didn’t do anything for a very long time. Eventually after about two years in the organization she was laid off as part of a company wide restructuring. They ignored the problem even though it was a huge drag on the team’s productivity and it was clear that she wasn’t doing well. We all noticed and nobody was happy about it.
Occasionally you will have someone on your staff who is unwilling to do the work required. Typically this gets right back to your expectations vs their agreement to do the work. Sometimes people are unwilling to do the work because they don’t see the value in it. Providing context can clear this up in most cases. If this is a cultural or attitude issue it becomes a lot harder. You cannot “make” someone do something they are unwilling to do and sometimes you just have to realize they are the wrong person for the job.
The worst type of lost cause is the person who is toxic to the culture. Every project and most of their personal interactions just cause strife and drama. You can either put a wall around them and have them work for and with a handful of people who can tolerate them to make sure you get the best out of them, or you can wish them well and let them go. In most cases the first solution eventually leads to the second one anyway. Determine how important they are to your company’s success before investing the emotional capital needed to keep the team afloat when these folks do everything they can to sink it. One thing that I have learned is that even people that you think are critical to the company sometimes really aren’t. Once they are gone the organization forms new ways of getting the work done.