Managing difficult employees – Can good employees have bad attitudes?

There are two reasons an employee fails to meet reasonable employer expectations – either they can’t or they won’t.  Falling short of expectations is often assessed through the lens of skill or will.  When the employee is trying but lacks the knowledge or experience needed to succeed in his/her role (skill issue), the solution is most commonly solved with training, coaching, better systems or access to resources, or sometimes mentoring.  Managing difficult employees, employees that are not trying however (will issue), is a much bigger challenge.

Behavioral issues are often misdiagnosed as skill/performance issues and therefore often go unresolved.   This is especially unfortunate as these behavioral issues can be incredibly damaging to a company’s culture and success.  Some of the most common workplace behavioral issues are:

  • Excessive absenteeism or tardiness (when not as part of an accommodation)
  • Insubordination
  • Gossip
  • Disruptive to others
  • Poor quality of work
  • Harassing behavior
  • Theft
  • Failure to meet KPIs
  • Emotional outbursts

There are two reasons behavioral issues are more difficult, 1) inexperienced leaders, and 2) employee actor-observer bias.

Experience Matters

Perhaps the hardest lesson learned in managing and leading people is that we all perceive, think about, and value things differently.  It’s easy to say, but when leading a team of conflicting personalities and priorities to achieve a common goal – the leadership can seem overwhelming.  Diagnosing why a person with the desire to succeed isn’t, is a tactical diagnosis.  An employee wants to get more sales, has a great attitude, works hard, and asks for help – it doesn’t take a lot of experience to recognize he needs training.  He’s putting the work in but needs help turning activity into sales.  What about the salesperson that isn’t “working hard”?  She previously hit her quota every month – but her sales have declined steadily over the last few months.  Is she calling out sick all the time?  Is she showing up late?  Leaving early?  When at work – is she working effectively or talking with co-workers and tending more to her social media accounts than customers.  Is she selling to fewer people, closing smaller deals, or both?  She has shown she can do the job, but somewhere along the line stopped.  Why?  This is a harder problem to solve because it requires insight, empathy, and a genuine desire to understand.  Generally, these are leadership qualities developed with experience.  It’s by managing and leading people that you develop the confidence and self-awareness needed to step outside of your own head willing to look at a situation from the perspective of another.  Good people make bad choices all of the time.  Many inexperienced managers assume the person “doesn’t care” or simply “has a bad attitude”.  A leader I worked with in the past would respond to managers complaints about an employee by asking the manager, “was the employee bad when you hired him or did you make him bad?”.  If you want employees to understand the “why” behind your company’s purpose, you need to understand their why as well.  Why do they choose to work hard?  Why do they sometimes choose not to?  You can discipline them, you can warn them, you can suspend them, but nothing serves as a solution to a behavioral problem unless you first understand the why behind it.  Why did they stop caring?  That’s the first step on the path to a solution.  Most employees can regain their love and passion to succeed in their role.  First though – we as leaders NEED to ask what caused it to be lost in the first place.

The actor-observer bias at work

The actor-observer bias is one of several attribution biases, concepts used in social psychology to describe irrational patterns in how we view our own behaviors and interpret behaviors of others.  The term refers to our tendency  to attribute our own behaviors to situational factors while attributing behaviors of others to internal factors.  Put simply, we see our behaviors as a reflection of a situation but perceive others behave a certain way because that’s who they are.  This bias causes behavioral problems to surface in two ways, 1) biased employees see their decisions and behaviors as the only option, rather than a choice, and 2) biased employees subscribe to the idea that only bad people do bad things.  Because someone doesn’t see himself as bad a person, he is incapable of doing bad things and as such, his behaviors are justified.  Think of an employee who is frequently late or absent.  Does she always have a reason?  Does she seem to feel you too should excuse her absence –as though she had no choice but to be late or miss the day?  A person harassing others, although clearly a more serious offense, often does not recognize himself as a harasser.  Because the person doing the harassing believes the person he is harassing either wants or deserves the unwanted attention, he typically feels his behavior is justified.  Ironically, the harasser is often the most offended by harassing behavior demonstrated by others, seeing other harassers as bad people rather than people engaging in harassing behavior (2 Reasons Your Harassment Training is Failing).  Research suggests this bias occurs less often with people we know well – most likely due to exposure.  We see ourselves, behaviors, and decisions as a reflection of situations and the more familiar we are with situations faced by others, the more we recognize that most of us are neither all good nor all bad.  Self-awareness allows us to see ourselves objectively, recognizing the impact our decisions have on others – and that every decision is a choice.  So, next time you’re forced to address an employee’s excessive absences or tardiness, ask him, “do you feel that everyone else that makes it in on time for work has it easy?  Do you feel they do not have extenuating circumstances that they must manage in order to get to work?”  This question can be a game changer in addressing similar behavioral issues.  With more serious behaviors like harassing others or insubordination, it’s important to focus on how the employee’s behavior impacts others – and how the behavior is not in line with the company’s values or culture.  When behavior issues are deliberate such as theft, fraud, or harassing behavior that’s hostile, manipulative, or calculated, it is very unlikely the leopard will change his spots.  There is always a chance that a person engaging in scheming and cunning behavior will change for the better; however, this is a decision she will make on her own.  No punishment, threat, or training will change the behavior and in many situations the person will only use warnings to behave poorly in a more conspicuous way.  It is up to each company and leader to find the right balance of forgiveness and accountability.  People will make mistakes and poor choices – to what extent you, as a leader, are willing to accept the harm those mistakes and poor choices brings to you, your company, and employees, is a choice you must make.

It would be great if we all just got it.  If we all saw our behaviors and decisions as choices and possessed the self-awareness to see how we impact others.  The reality is, we are flawed.  There is no such thing as a perfect person and therefore cannot be a perfect employee, or leader.  A successful workplace culture isn’t about perfection.  A successful culture is about a group of unique individuals coming together to achieve a common purpose.  So the key is establishing a common set of values and then communicating, upholding, and delivering on those values relentlessly – addressing when actions or behaviors deviate from what benefits the group, as a whole, or their collective purpose.  Strong and healthy workplaces have behavioral issues. They only differ from toxic workplaces in how leaders respond to those issues.  Address the behaviors harming your company’s culture today because it’s the only way you will ever achieve your purpose.

 

Watch our tutorial on how to address employee behavioral issues here.

Need help with getting employees engaged?  Contact a Culture Engineer!

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