Best Practices For Confronting Problem People On Your Team

Failing to confront problem employees does a disservice to the employee, your team and your career.

problem peopleDo you have a problem person on your team? If so, you’re not alone. Every leader, regardless of level, seems to have stories about a “special” employee – perhaps someone who performs poorly, resists change, or just doesn’t work well with others.

But problem employees are more than a nuisance; they can be a real business liability. Research shows underperformers can reduce the motivation and effectiveness of an entire work group, costing organizations thousands of dollars a day.

And our own research shows that problem employees can negatively impact teams and torpedo the careers of those for whom they work.

This image shows the ways in which problem employees negatively impacted aspects of their work group either to a “great” or a “very great” extent.

This image shows the ways in which problem employees impacted them personally, either to a “great” or a “very great” extent.

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So why do we tolerate these bad actors? The simple answer is that confronting them is something not many of us do well, whether we’re a front-line manager or a C-Suite executive. In fact, confronting problem employees ranks lowest among the 16 key leadership capabilities the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) tracks in its extensive database of competency ratings for leaders around the globe.

The bottom line: It’s time for all leaders – regardless of level – to learn how to confront problem employees and do so effectively. CCL recommends a simple, three-step model for delivering feedback that is fact-based and judgment-free. The Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) focuses on referencing specific situations, behaviors and impacts in your communications.

For example: “During today’s financial results meeting (the situation), you interrupted me six times to challenge the information on my slides (the behavior). As a result, I didn’t have sufficient time to explain the strategies we’re going to use to improve next quarter’s results. I’m frustrated that I couldn’t accomplish what I set out to do since this important work needs to begin now (the impact).”

The model can be really effective once you’ve found your rhythm and especially when you adopt the following eight best practices:

  • Be timely. Don’t save up all the problem behaviors you’ve observed over many days or months and present them all at once. If you do, you are likely to encounter resistance. Deal with issues as they crop up.
  • Keep it short. Feedback is not a monologue; it should be the start to a conversation. Don’t ramble, suggest excuses for the behavior, or talk for too long. Simply share through the situation, behavior and impact, then pause to give the employee an opportunity to respond.
  • Show empathy. Problem employees are more likely to accept and use feedback if they perceive you genuinely care about their welfare and want to help them improve. So soften your demeanor and choose concern over coldness.
  • Give positive feedback when deserved. Reinforce those things the individual is doing well. Hopefully this will diminish the need for negative feedback.
  • Don’t use the “sandwich” technique. It can be tempting to tuck negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback. But your problem employee may assume two out of three isn’t bad. Or they may suspect the positive feedback was made up to soften the negative news. Neither option is ideal.
  • Get the mix right. Studies show individuals are more likely to acknowledge negative feedback when most of what they hear from you over time is positive. Aim for at least a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback. You may need to do some digging to find those “pluses” to praise, but it can be worth the effort.
  • Don’t be a “fixer.” Most of us aren’t open to the notion of someone trying to change who we are. If your problem employee thinks that’s what you are trying to do, your feedback efforts will be wasted. So focus on behaviors, and don’t draw broad or personal conclusions about the person as a whole – just discuss what behaviors need to stop, start or continue.
  • Create a favorable environment for feedback. Don’t isolate your feedback to problem employees. Provide your entire team with feedback on a daily basis. When you do, both your blood pressure and your bottom line will benefit.

Failing to confront problem employees does a disservice to the employee, your team and your career. As a chief executive, you are in a unique position to lead from the top and model the feedback behaviors you want your entire organization to adopt.

While we’ve yet to meet anyone who relishes the delicate task of confronting a problem person, it’s a skill everyone can learn. So review our best practices for feedback and cascade SBI discussions across your organization. You’ll be much closer to saying “problem solved.”

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