When Managing Difficult Employees, Take the Long View
We all want the perfect employee: someone who’s talented, excited about our company and intuitively sees the big picture. But sometimes, if they’re not kept in the proper balance, those same traits can make a staffer more frustrating than valuable.
Consider the programmer who fancies himself a social media guru. You’ve got a marketing team in place, but the programmer peppers them with new strategies, new articles, his own tweets that he insists be reposted at every turn. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much wrong with an engaged worker, but your marketing team is good at what it does, works hard and is spending more time than it’s got fending off the programmer’s constant forays. It doesn’t help that he can’t hold back his frustrations: He always lets other people know what marketing is “doing wrong.” Focusing on areas beyond his own responsibilities, the programmer is frustrating others, missing deadlines and producing sloppy work.
I call these kinds of employees “incorrigible,” because no amount of reasoning, explanation or downright badgering will make them change their ways. However, the incorrigible employee is manageable as long as you’re willing to get into the weeds with them and take the long term view.
Get training. Somehow, from somewhere, these staffers got the idea that their methods were acceptable and even helpful. This might be your company’s culture or picked up from some other manager. Regardless, you might take a moment to educate your whole team first about how to deliver feedback and work effectively with each other. When these your difficult staffers start pointing out what other teams are doing wrong, make that a teaching moment, referencing the communication strategies the team learned as a group. Ask your incorrigible employees how they could have brought these important points up differently.
Stay strong. When you reach out to these staffers, they may react as if you’re putting them in the penalty box. And in a sense, you are. But understand their position: They believe their observations help and that you’re refusing their expertise. Change the conversation and stress that you are in their corner (“I want to keep you on track to succeed”). Make sure they understand that feedback delivered professionally is always welcome.
Keep them focused. Difficult employees can be like second basemen without concentration, taking their eye off the batter to critique the pitcher’s follow through. You need your programmers to program, your editors to edit, your sales reps to sell. Explain that staffers are judged primarily on their core responsibilities (“You’re so busy worrying about other areas you’re not getting your own work done”). Help your staffer funnel their energies into their own role, letting their innovation start there.
Stay on top. It doesn’t take long for incorrigible employees to drift off-track. So, you’ll need to review their progress and deadlines regularly, at least several times a week. Use these sessions to reinforce your expectations, but do it in a way that stresses the value they bring to the company. “You’re a great programmer, and we won’t succeed if you don’t focus on building a great product.”
Be disciplined. You must have these discussions more than once a week, though they don’t have to be long. Get a status report on the workers’ progress, identify issues that might impact their deadlines and be prepared to hear out an idea or two that stretches beyond their purview. That, essentially, lets them blow off steam. But keep your eye on the clock and make sure the meeting sticks to the subject. This should be five or 10 minutes of recapping these workers’ previous work and staying top of what’s coming up.
Most founders are time-pressed in the best of cases, so this kind of micromanaging is the last thing you’ll want to do. But remember, you hired this person for good reasons: that talent, excitement and ability to see the road ahead. You may actually have the ideal employee in front of you. You just need to tease him out.