Consider the case of a team with a toxic employee.  I am coaching the manager who says, “I told him right out what is not working, and he keeps doing it.”

The manager is being honest with feedback.  And yet, the situation perpetuates itself…even worsens.

This post is the first in a three-part series to present tools to turn around situations with bad-attitude employees.

The Case of the Toxic Team Member

This young employee, let’s call him George, had been assigned to a team for a specific project.  George’s previous work had been well enough appreciated, his skills were valuable, and this project needed manpower.

The manager expected higher quality output than what he was getting from George, so he let him know it.  Honestly. And with respectful language.

“You have got to be more thorough.”

“Be responsible.  Take initiative.”

“Don’t wait for me to specify what work you need to do and how.”

“There are mistakes in this document!”

Instead of improving his attitude and effort, George withdrew when in front of the manager and talked behind his back.

manager employee toxic relationship. Vicious cycleRumors got back to the manager who trusted George less and less.  He was on the lookout for occasions where George underperformed.  People find what they seek; the manager identified imperfect work, and George received increasing critique and diffused more resentment throughout the team.

Vicious circle.  Toxic employee.  Suffering team.

The Manager is Honest and Respectful.  Isn’t he right?!

Yes, the manager clearly pointed out the areas of underperformance without disparaging the junior employee, George.

Could he have done anything else? Yes.

The Trust Balance on Overdraft

Let me use a metaphor to explain:  Credit

When you pay off your debt, the balance becomes ZERO.  Not negative.  Yet not positive either.

When the manager pointed out the faults, he may have been removing negative behaviors.  It’s like he brought “development potential” up…up to zero!  Yet, the employee still totters on the brink of demotivation and disengagement.

The manager’s goal is to generate a positive performance AND positive return on the investment in talent.  Pointing out the negatives is not the same as investing in skill development.

There are constructive communication tools which BOTH set limits for expected results AND SIMULTANEOUSLY encourage and engage the employee. Before considering termination, try one of these less costly and potentially high return approaches to bringing a slacking employee up to speed.

  1. Acknowledge the challenge…and your role in it (this post)
  2. Use “I” Messages
  3. Schedule frequent feedback

This post is the first in a series of three where we address tools to encourage employees.

Acknowledge the challenge…and your role in it

How can one have a conflict with only one person?

By definition, a clash involves a minimum of two parties.  It is rare that with humans one person is totally correct and the other one is completely 100% in neglect.

On the principle, the boss is most probably correct.  Performance needs improvement.

And yet…How was the tone of voice?  Or the clarity of expectations?  How many times do we spout off requests while rushing to a meeting?!

I had a situation where an employee was mourning the death of a friend from overdose and the boss had just had a fight with his teen.  In their respective hypersensitive states, latent tension was exposed.  They clashed, and it led to subsequent coaching.

An outright confrontation has the advantage of bringing the differences out in the open.  It’s a costly move for everyone.  Angry outbursts at work leave a mark on everyone’s reputation.

Here are more trust-building ways to address a conflictual relationship.

Inquire & listen

“I wonder if we are understanding each other as effectively as we could. How would you rate our communication on a scale of 1 (ineffective) to 10 (full engagement on both of our parts)?”

Find ways to have your employee speak and name the challenge.  They are savvy at slithering into a victim mentality.  Avoid the trap with this type of question which respectfully yet firmly has the employee face his responsibility for his attitude and behavior.

A ranking provides a starting point for exposing differences.  If they respond with a “9” and you think the cooperation runs at “2”, it’s an opportunity for each of you to express your expectations of effective collaboration.

“What does a “9” entail, and can you give me an example of when this happened?”

Think of it like deciphering an optical illusion where both of you see different images in the same brush strokes on the paper.

Read: See Through Someone Else’s Eyes

Set a meeting with just this topic on the agenda.

Separate personal and professional issues

“As a manager, I don’t see us working well together to reach performance objectives. As a person just like you, I would like work to be a motivating and pleasant part of my life.  I feel frustrated (choose your emotion) with the way we work together.  I don’t see us reaching either of those goals.  When can we set a time to discuss what you want from this job and what you expect from your work relationships and I can share mine too?”

Many young employees seek society at work.  Their work used to be school and that’s where they made friends. Help them understand that performance issues differ from their interest as an individual.

By having the employee “present his case” you again have him face the responsibility of his own attitude.

Give the employee a respectful way to voice objections

“You and I seem to be viewing the same situation from very different perspectives. When can we sit down, and you can tell me your understanding of our project requirements and of our teamwork?  At 9:00 a.m. or after lunch?”

We managers give feedback regularly.  Often in little chunks.  We drop by his desk on the way to a meeting.  We call him into our office, say our stuff, and dismiss him.

(In the third post of this series we will look at a way to encourage self-evaluation and focus feedback on ways to progress.)

When are employees invited to share their disagreements with their boss?

Consider this an opportunity to model the kind of behavior and respect you would like to receive from him.

Switch Perspectives

The above questions invite both manager and employee to switch perspectives.

The employee is challenged to get out of a “victim” mindset where the world owes him favors.  The manager gives him responsibility for his actions.

Each of these examples also acknowledges that the manager, may not have a 360° understanding of the situation.  The more responsibility one gains, the more difficult it is to know what happens lower in the organizational structure.

The boss has the power to give a raise, to promote (and to dictate who works on weekends).  Team members watch for signs from their manager that indicates they may disagree without negative repercussions.

That young employee’s adverse behavior might just be an indication that a sensitive subject merit being addressed.

I have learned what I do well and what to improve in my leadership style through such discussions.  It’s not always pleasant.  It has been beneficial.

Your Invitation to Disagree

I presented these concepts to Harvard Business School alumni.  Some espoused them immediately: “It’s so obvious that I forgot to think of it.  Like fish not recognizing water.”

Others took the opposite stance, “You are letting the wolves take over.”

What is your take on dealing with a potentially toxic employee?  Comment below or send me a message.

 

Next week, we’ll explore “I” Messages.  Stay tuned.

Cover photo by David Clode on Unsplash

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