What do I do with a problem employee?

We’ve all been part of a team that works well but for that one employee that is a pain in the proverbial. There’s a saying that the squeaky wheel gets the oil; the one who complains loudest gets the most attention. And that can be true. But often, the attention is the wrong sort of attention.  And often, it’s self perpetuating, so the more attention given, the more attention that is needed.

So, what do you if you have an employee that is just a pain in proverbial?

As a leader, it’s a common issue. Sometimes it’s about you, sometimes it is about them and sometimes it is about the organisation. The key from a leader’s perspective is to identify why an employee is behaving the way they do.  Thinking about the “why” of why an employee behaves the way that they do can give you clarity around how to solve the issue, whereas if you only ever focus on the “what” they do, you may find yourself spending a lot of time on the employee but never actually solve the underlying issue.   Remember employees often act in  a particular way because they believe it will fulfil an unmet need.

Firstly, be specific about how the employee is being “difficult”. Quantify behaviours, examples, language, situations.  A nagging “feeling” isn’t helpful when trying to identify why an employee acts the way they do.

Then ask yourself (and the employee if you can) why?- Is it about you, is it about them or is it about the organisation? What do they need from the attention that they are not otherwise getting?

When the problem is you and your leadership

The recent CIPD survey – getting under the skin of workplace conflict found the most common form of conflict in the workplace was between an employee and their manager. The most common reason given was a perceived lack of respect given from the manager to the employee.

So this is a logical place to start. Firstly, because you CAN control your own behaviours unlike others behaviours over whom you have no actual control. So, a bit of self reflection. How do you act towards the employee? Is there anything you could do to change your behaviour to be more positive, appropriate etc?

When the problem is them

Often of course though, the issue is not about you at all.  Sometimes it is about the employee and sometimes their personal circumstances.

  • Is there something going on at home or in their personal life that is affecting their behaviour at work? Do they need support – either from a professional such as an employee assistance programme or from the organisation in some way, shape or form?
  • Is the job the right job for them? — In terms of capability (i.e. ability to do the job), capacity (their ability to deal with the size of the job), and fit (are they the right person in the right job at the right time)? Do they need training, development or some other tools to support them to be able to do the job?
When the problem is the organisation

Sometimes you have the right person in the right type of job, but just working for the wrong sort of organisation. Often the complaints you hear from employees are around the perception of organisational values and culture and the disconnect with their own values. Often it’s about team dynamics or the way that teams interact with other teams within the organisation.

The useful thing about looking at it this way – is that some things you can influence, and some things you can’t. Sometimes, the problem employee does need actual help and proper attention. Sometimes, they are just a square peg in a round hole organisation and no manner of assistance or attention is going to solve the issue.

So, this week’s takeaways:

  • Look at the “why” not the “what”.
  • Sometimes it’s you, sometimes it is them and sometime’s it is the situation/the organisation.
  • Sometimes it can be fixed, sometimes it can’t (and that’s ok).

Until next week, happy leading,

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