We’ve yet to meet a leader who is confused by the term “problem employee.” In fact, more often than not, leaders can immediately identify their team members who fit that description. But too often, problem employees remain in organizations, doing damage to both their work groups and their direct manager’s career.
Problem employees disrupt team innovation, erode trust and derail group output, with each problem person costing organizations up to $8,000 per day. Research from our organization, the Center for Creative Leadership, or CCL, has found that managers’ careers are negatively impacted if those around them observe problem employee behavior continuing unchecked. This impacts manager reputations, leading to a lower likelihood of promotion.
Despite a plethora of leadership programming and literature that identifies this issue, most leaders struggle with addressing these challenging employees. Our research shows that of key leadership competencies, “confronting problem employees” remains one of the biggest growth needs for most leaders.
Understanding the Problem
We recently explored the challenge of managing problem employees with a survey of 214 leaders worldwide. We asked these leaders to describe a current or past problem employee, with a specific focus on their problematic behaviors. Some clear themes emerged in the responses. Problem employees often turn in poor work performance, demonstrate an inability to work well with others and fail to respond to coaching. In the end, we identified 11 distinct “problem” types.
One of the most intriguing behavioral groups we discovered we termed “Yes, but …” employees. These individuals had strong positive attributes, yet they also demonstrated at least one negative behavior that overshadowed the good. For example, some problem employees have high expertise but are unable to get along well with others. Others have deep, productive relationships within the group but fail to meet their basic job requirements.
How can managers address problematic employee behaviors? At CCL, we’ve found that leaders who are most effective at dealing with problem employees have a specific communications approach when it comes to feedback.
A Non-evaluative, Three-step Process
Once an employee’s pattern of problem behavior emerges, dealing with it effectively requires a measure of bravery and focus on timeliness. Successful leaders learn to confront problem behavior soon after it occurs, while the behavior is fresh in their mind and the problem employee’s memory. This helps cement shared understanding, which can lead to a more fruitful conversation with less pushback or defensiveness.
A three-step approach called Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) feedback can be a powerful tool. In this process, the feedback giver:
- Describes the Situation in which the problematic behavior was observed (e.g., “During our weekly team meeting this morning …”).
- Shares a specific, objective description of the Behavior (e.g., “You interrupted me three times while I was explaining the new strategic initiative.”).
- Explains the Impact the behavior had, either on a personal level or that was observed in others (e.g., “It caused me to leave out important pieces of information because I could not remember what I’d been saying before you cut in. This made it harder for the rest of the team to understand the new plan. I feel frustrated.”).
When using SBI for feedback, it’s important not to speculate about the problem employee’s motivations or feelings. By just noting the behavior itself, the person receiving feedback is less likely to become defensive, which opens up a discussion about the behavior. In the example above, perhaps the employee was trying to demonstrate interest in the topic, or maybe the data was wrong and the employee was trying to correct the presentation in a less-obvious way. The feedback giver may still dislike the interruptions, but SBI allows the colleagues to come to a better understanding, rather than making feedback feel punitive or aggressive. It is this difference — making the confrontation more about a dialogue and less about airing grievances — that can lead to the problem employee changing their behavior.
In addition to addressing problem behavior as it arises, CCL’s research shows that successful leaders create a culture where feedback is common and ordinary. Using the SBI approach to commend the problem employee for doing something good, as well as addressing problematic behavior, can help them feel more supported and reinforce the behavior you’d like to see.
Consistent feedback improves performance and reputation for both leaders and teams, and ensures that problem employees know what’s working —and what’s not – well before their annual review.
Here are seven best practices that can help leaders to give better feedback.
- Be timely. Deal with issues as they arise.
- Keep it short. Stick to the Situation-Behavior-Impact approach. Avoid rambling; allow for a response.
- Listen to understand. Listening to your direct report could change your perception of an issue.
- Show empathy. If your employees can tell you care about them, they’ll respond better.
- Don’t “sandwich.” Squeezing negative feedback directly between praise defeats the purpose. Sharing feedback on a regular basis will allow you to address positive and developmental feedback at different times.
- Reinforce good behaviors. Over time, try to reach at least a 3-to-1 ratio of positive to negative feedback.
- Practice. Don’t be afraid to plan out, write down, or rehearse what you want to say.
When Feedback Is Not Enough
Of course, simply addressing the problem behavior doesn’t always resolve it. Even the most-skilled leaders may encounter employees who are unable or unwilling to change their behavior, even after multiple rounds of specific feedback. In these cases, it can be appropriate for leaders to consult with their human resources or legal departments to decide on the best course of action or create a formal development plan. But by addressing the problem behavior head-on, leaders — and their teams — will benefit greatly.
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