When I supervised a small mail center, I was often challenged by one of my employees. He didn’t like to conform to many of the new procedures I was attempting to establish. He would often attempt to intimidate me, once in front of his peers. It’s important to point out that he was about 6 foot 6. And well, I’m not.
A challenging aspect of any manager’s job is dealing with an employee who isn’t performing to standard. You need to take steps that will change the employee’s behavior, and ultimately lead to a change in their attitude.
Let’s start by reviewing what doesn’t work. Fear is the least successful motivator, and threats are always demoralizing. While some people will only follow rules because of what will happen if they don’t. Most people do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.
Many managers will argue that at times you need to use direct action to change a person’s behavior. The quickest way to get someone to do something is to forcefully tell them with explicit language. Frederick Herzberg calls this verbal kick in the pants “KITA”—or a kick in the... (Harvard Business Review, September, 1987).
It’s true that KITA will normally cause a change in behavior. For the moment. However, KITA does little to help create a positive attitude. The worker will be motivated only to NOT do things that will lead to further punishment. Not exactly a building block for success.
Obviously, for any organization to succeed there must be a set of rules that are followed by everyone. Also, there must be consequences for not following those rules. As a former military officer, I fully support respect for authority, and adherence to standards.
An old boss of mine, General Dennis Reimer, once wrote, "Discipline is not the fear of punishment for doing something wrong, but a faith in the value of doing something right."
So what are the right steps? To successfully change a person’s behavior and help develop a better attitude, the manager must focus on clear communication and positive action.
Hold the discussion in private. It’s important that you meet with the employee at a time and place that you won’t be disturbed. If you don’t have an office with a door, schedule time in a conference room. Follow the adage: “Praise in public, criticize in private.”
Focus on the facts. In many difficult situations, the behavior in question has affected people’s emotions. It’s critical to set aside those emotions, and get the facts straight. De-personalize the situation and focus on the events, not the person. Delineate exactly what happened and the consequences to those actions. Stay focused on the issue, and don’t get sidetracked.
Clear up any communication issues. Make sure that the person understands what’s expected of them. Clarify your department’s policies, and what happens when someone doesn’t comply. Explain the purpose of the rules, and the consequences to the individual, as well as the whole unit. Ask questions to be sure that the worker understands.
Get to the root of the behavior. Find out why the person did what they did. Was it a lapse in judgment? Was it out of fear? Are they looking for a reason to be fired? There may be a situation outside of work that is causing stress. Make sure you know about the employee—their background, family situation, etc.
Get the employee’s input. People work harder when they’re involved in developing the solution. Ask the employee what they think can be done to solve the problem. In his book, Swim with the Sharks, Harvey Mackay details his method of employee involvement. He has people sit in his chair, and asks them, “All right, now what would you say if you were me?” Often the employees are even harder on themselves than he would be.
Draft a written action plan. There’s no substitute for a written agreement. Write down exactly what you expect of the employee. Create attainable, short-term goals with action plans and timelines. Schedule a follow-up meeting to review their progress. Whenever possible, acknowledge their improvements, however small.
Sometimes it’s best to go your separate ways. Not everyone can work together. It may be that clashing values and personalities make it impossible for success, even with great effort. Have an honest discussion with your employee to see if they agree. You’ll be amazed at the number of times that they’ll be relieved and agree to a mutual departure. But if there is confrontation, you must be prepared to terminate employment. This is never easy, but as Harvey Mackay explains, “It isn’t the people you fire who make your life miserable, it’s the people you don’t.”
Based on real world experience (not psychological theory), these steps take time and effort, but they work. For example, let’s go back to my confrontation with the 6 foot 6 employee.
Instead of taking the bait, I had him follow me into a conference room. With no audience, we could have an open, honest, no holds barred conversation. After tempers subsided, we reviewed what was and wasn’t acceptable. We also talked about what he wanted to do with his job and his life. We tied opportunities for training with performance, developed an action plan, and we both achieved our goals.
Dealing with difficult behavior is never easy. Yet, it can be a challenge that leads to the greatest reward possible—helping another person overcome obstacles and meeting their goals. By taking a positive approach, focusing on the facts, and working together, your employee and you can both be successful.