Tag Archives: performance

Crucial Accountability QA

Working with a Difficult Employee

Dear Crucial Skills,
When I recently assumed my current job, I “inherited” an employee who has a long history of bad behavior such as being rude, stirring up trouble, and refusing to work with coworkers as a team player. How do I confront this person when the whole department has played into his behavior for years?

Inherited Employee

Dear Inherited,

“Inheriting” an employee with a history of bad behavior is a concern for any leader. I strongly recommend your first conversation with this employee not be a “shake-down” or a “you’d better be careful cuz I’m watching you!” speech. Rather, you ought to extend a sincere handshake followed by friendly introductions.

The next step is orienting your employees to your leadership style and expectations. Even before exploring specific duties or concerns, explain the operating values and principles of your team and your expectations of team members. It’s best if this is a collaborative process involving the entire team, but at a minimum, everyone needs to be clear about the team values and operating principles. Explain that employees are not only responsible to produce results but are also responsible to produce results in a way that strengthens the team in the process. Give specific examples of what is acceptable behavior and what is out of bounds. This kind of orientation with your team sets clear expectations and gives everyone a chance for a new start—independent from past patterns and personality conflicts.

Your next leader-role with the team is teacher and coach. This requires gathering data through contact and observation, especially with the employee you have concerns about. Over the next few days, catch the employee, in the moment, doing things right. Acknowledge when his behavior approximates an important team value or principle and thank him. For example, you might say:

“Hey, Brent, I noticed in the team meeting when Alice asked for ideas about her project, you gave several helpful suggestions. That is a great example of our team value of collaboration. Your input helped Alice and helped to build a stronger team. Thank you.”

Similarly, when you see behavior that violates the team’s values, confront it as soon as is reasonably possible. Do this by first describing the gap by factually detailing what happened compared with what is expected. Next, ask why it happened this way. You could say:

“Brent, I noticed that when Jerry presented his proposal, you said his plan was ‘idiotic’ and asked him if he had ever heard of ‘professional standards’ before. One of our team principles is to treat each other with respect. Your comment was clearly disrespectful. Why did you say that?”

If he responds that he didn’t realize his comment was disrespectful, take the opportunity to define more precisely what is meant by the value of respect.

If he replies that it’s no big deal, then you have the opportunity to teach consequences and make the invisible visible. It could be that one reason for his past friction with employees is that no one helped him understand the negative, natural consequences his behavior had on others.

If he replies that he knows he shouldn’t do that, but can’t help himself, it becomes an opportunity to teach him the skills to start with heart or master his stories.

After each conversation, move to action. Get a clear and specific commitment from him about who will do what by when, and then follow-up on that commitment.

Clear expectations, as well as frequent and immediate praise and confrontation, are your best chance to help someone work well with others in a new setting.

Of course, this approach requires patience and persistence, and you must always give people the opportunity and the help they may need to improve. However, if over time, he does not comply and his poor behavior continues, make sure he understands that following the team principles and values is not a suggestion, it’s a requirement of his job.

At this point, it’s time to move from helping him understand the natural consequences of bad behavior to the consequences you will impose on him if he doesn’t comply. Clarify that the consequences of not working within the team standards are the steps of discipline identified by the organization, even including termination. Make sure he understands that failure to comply with your requirements around teamwork will result in you applying the steps of discipline. Moving this far is very serious and will most likely damage your working relationship with him, but at some point, his failure to abide by the team’s standards is a detriment both to the results you’re after as a leader and your other team members’ quality of life. Choosing what’s best for the team is more important than trying to preserve a troubled relationship.

My experience has been that this approach helps most employees—even those with a history of bad behavior—to improve their behavior and relationships with others. It also improves the team’s results. Please keep in mind this approach does not guarantee the changes in others you desire; it’s not a way of controlling others; it’s not a trick for manipulating others. This is a way to respectfully help individuals choose to be successful. Ultimately, it’s the individual’s choice whether or not to be a part of the enterprise you lead, and that’s as it should be.

All the Best,

Crucial Accountability QA

Out-of-Sync Performance Reviews

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m holding a performance review with one of my direct reports. The way we do it here is that he rates himself first. Next, I provide a rating and lots of data to support it. It’s not unusual for the employee to offer a higher rating than the supervisor, but this time it was much higher.

And here’s the tricky part. At the end of the performance review I’m supposed to assign improvement goals to him. I did, but he disagreed with all of them because he thinks he walks on water and I think he’s under water. Now he’s got goals I know he doesn’t believe he needs to work on. What next?

Agree to Disagree

Dear Agree to Disagree,

Sounds like an awkward moment. One I’ve been in myself. (We recently recreated one of these kinds of awkward performance reviews in a video.) It should be no surprise to those of us in leadership positions that we often have to confront people’s illusions about themselves. The fact that human beings have an incredibly inflated sense of efficacy is also no surprise. I just attended my son’s soccer game last Saturday and smiled when I heard parents from both sides swearing vehemently that the ref was obviously playing for the other team. We all think we do better, deserve more, and are perfectly informed far more often than is the case. (Note: The ref did, in fact, favor the other team).

The tricky thing in performance reviews is that even leaders might have an inflated sense of rightness. And these leaders are seated across the table from someone who likely suffers from the same affliction. So how can two imperfect people muddle their way toward truth?

The answer is to trust the dialogue. A better approximation of truth is much more likely to emerge through healthy dialogue. So here are a few tips to help the dialogue happen in the emotionally charged atmosphere of a performance review.

1. Decide how to decide. To avoid violated expectations, be clear up front that while your strong preference is to arrive at consensus about the rating and goals, at the end of the discussion you as the supervisor are charged with making the final decision. Do not overstate this—let your team member know that you are willing to spend the time and energy required to reach a common view of things and would only make an independent decision if it’s clear you cannot do so in a reasonable amount of time.

2. Don’t own the burden of proof—share it. Don’t get cornered into feeling like you have to convince your direct report that you are “right.” That’s not your job. Your job is simply to share your view. If you find yourself trying to convince your team member that your view is “right,” then you’ve stepped out of dialogue and into monologue. You need to step away from your own conclusions and recognize that they are just one view of the truth. Take a few deep breaths and open yourself to a different perspective. Share the responsibility for arriving at the “right” conclusion. Let him know that you’d like his help in making sense of a substantial amount of data. You should feel that together, you’re filling a pool of meaning, not that you’re trying to convince each other of your story.

3. Separate content and pattern. Often, the disconnect comes because the supervisor has seen a pattern and is attempting to help the employee recognize and take responsibility for this pattern. Yet the employee doesn’t own up to these behaviors. Instead, he or she explains away one data point after another.

For example, you say, “On a number of occasions, customers have complained that you were brusque or impatient with them.” There’s the pattern you’re trying to establish.

To which your team member says, “Can you give me an example?”

Now, here’s where it gets slippery. At this point, you MUST give him examples. You can’t expect him to just nod robotically to the pattern you’re alleging he has demonstrated. So you give an example: “Last Friday a customer said you dropped his project on the counter and walked away without saying a word.” To which he says, “I remember that—and that’s not what happened. Yes, I didn’t say anything, but I smiled and waved and turned to get a phone call that had been on hold.”

This is a tricky point in the crucial confrontation because something subtle just happened. If you don’t catch it, you’ll end this performance review feeling unsatisfied and at odds. You’ll avoid this outcome if you can recognize what your team member just did. What was it?

He changed the subject from a pattern conversation to a content conversation. You’re now discussing what happened last Friday rather than what happens as a pattern.

Here’s what you have to do to move back to the right conversation: “I see—and I can see how you might have thought you handled things right in that instance. But what I need your help with is the pattern that has emerged. I can share three different examples with you—and there may be extenuating circumstance in each—and yet the pattern is more consistent with you than with other members of the team. That’s what I’d like us to discuss and resolve.”

Do you see what just happened? First, I tried to share responsibility for addressing the pool of meaning. Second, I moved the conversation from content back to pattern. And finally, I set expectations that if he continues to give explanations for every element of the pattern, he’ll still need to address why the pattern is different for him than for other team members.

Now, even if you do all of these things, you still may agree to disagree. In which case, you’ll have to lean back on suggestion number one. You could end with something like: “Well, it seems like we see things differently. I appreciate your patience and hope you can see that I have sincerely wanted to understand your view, as well. Yet I still have to make my best judgment about what’s going on and how to move ahead. I apologize if I am wrong in that judgment, but I ask that you respect the position I’m in and make efforts to respond. I still believe this pattern of brusqueness with customers is an issue you should address. To do so, I ask you to do the following. . .”

Your question demonstrates how seriously you take your coaching role. I applaud your efforts and wish you luck as you sort through your own self-illusions and work to be a positive influence on some of our similarly afflicted colleagues. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to convince the ref that he’s playing favorites!


Crucial Accountability QA

Confronting Poor Performance

Dear Crucial Skills,

I supervise an employee who appears to be struggling with her responsibilities. We upgraded our software systems several years ago, and she still does not understand how the software works. In the past two years, I have received many phone calls and e-mails from customers and coworkers regarding their concerns with her. I have addressed these problems with her and have also written up a performance improvement plan. However, she still hovers on the line between employment and unemployment. What more can I do?

Struggling with Responsibility

Dear Struggling,

What a question! There are levels and flavors within this question that are intriguing (and ever so pervasive) at work and at home. Of course, the main issue here is accountability.

Over the years, as we’ve consulted with managers to work on accountability skills and with teams to build a culture of accountability, we’ve noted the following:

  • In low performing cultures, people don’t hold others accountable.
  • In good performing cultures, supervisors (or people with power) hold others accountable.
  • In the best performing cultures, everyone can and does hold everyone else accountable.

That distinction is key for a couple of reasons. When even a few low performers are not held accountable, the standard drops for everyone. “Oh yeah,” say colleagues, “Our written standards are A, but our real standards are A minus twenty percent.” Also, performance management systems alone cannot deal with performance gaps. Systems are necessary, but not sufficient. Real-time accountability is the responsibility of every person and is done the moment it’s needed. High, clear standards and real-time accountability from everyone is the key to a healthy culture.

Your direct report has a performance gap. You have followed a process. You have talked to her and even written her up. Given what you’ve shared in your question, here are a couple of suggestions.

  • Make sure the expectations are clear. Clarity is needed on the process, steps or behaviors, and on the outcomes and results.
  • Don’t underestimate people’s need for training. People are excellent at masking ability problems. Does this employee need additional skill building? Are there any other barriers that are causing her to not perform? Too often, managers try to motivate employees when the real problem is an issue of ability. So make sure you’ve looked at her skills and knowledge. Make sure she can do the process is essential.
  • Clarify the consequences and then follow through. One of the biggest concerns I had as I read your question is this statement: “In the past two years…” This problem has gone on for too long. People often assume that to be nice they need to work on an issue for a long time. Not so. If you’ve clarified expectations, made sure she is capable, and removed barriers, then you need to help motivate her.
  • Motivate with natural consequences. After you have shared with her what her low performance has done to suppliers, customers, colleagues and to you, you need to start a discipline process. This process often includes probation, suspension without pay, and then termination. A fair and patient process gives people the clarity, the support, and the time they need to improve. If they don’t improve, they need to be let go. Avoiding the consequences is not positive for you, the company, or for your direct report. When people do not perform, when they feel stressed because they can’t do the job, it’s not helpful to them to keep that job. It is better for them to find a job that matches their abilities and their motivation. So this last step is often not only essential for the company, it is the best step for the employee. /LI>

Thank you for your question. And best wishes to all who are working to improve accountability, at work and at home.