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Confronting a problem employee

Ah, the employee whose work is as good as his or her personality is bad. As a manager, you need to lead the culprit on the path to enlightenment.
/ Source: Business Week

One of my clients recently called me and blurted out, "Bill is the most brilliant engineer we've ever had and the most despised person in the entire company. We would hate to lose him, but no one can imagine continuing to work with him." The thorny issue of a problematic personality confronts every manager. It's an exceptionally tricky challenge. Most managers would rather let sleeping dogs lie than play etiquette referee. Here are some strategies for turning a managerial liability into an effective and empathic leader.

1. Isolate the cause: Arrange a meeting with the person in question to determine the reasons for the behavior. Frequently, outbursts are rooted in frustration and impatience. In the particular case mentioned above, my client's engineer expected everyone to match his own personal standards of performance. This revealed itself in verbal attacks with predictably disastrous results. Finding the real motivations behind the conduct will make it easier to arrive at a solution.

2. Acknowledge and validate: Ask yourself, "Is he or she motivated by vindictiveness or a genuine desire to do the best job possible?" Your answer will provide you with a signpost for the best approach to correct the situation. Make it clear that while the employee's objectives may be honorable, the behavior is not. Use positive reinforcement statements. By showing empathy and aligning yourself with the culprit's cause, you will gain trust and respect.

3. Provide evidence and discuss consequences: Denial is a common reaction when anyone is confronted and held accountable for problematic actions. Provide documented evidence of the negative effects as described by others. Explain how the behavior is pushing away others, sabotaging productivity and undermining success — starting with the offender's own success. Establish the connection between the behavior and staff morale and then explain why the outcome is ultimately in his or her own hands.

4. Appeal to self-interest: Most people want to know "What's in it for me?" before they can muster the motivation to change. In some cases, the upside, or "personal pay value," is the promise that it will enable the problem personality to continue working in current capacities. Alternatively, you can explain that modifying and improving behavior may carry material rewards. Whether you use the carrot or the stick, you must make the message forthright: "It may be scary to move out of your comfort zone, but the payback will greatly exceed the fear or uneasiness you may be feeling."

5. Encourage awareness of others: Suggest that the person in question ask, "How will my actions or what I'm about to say affect others?" Many of us have a blind spot when it comes to seeing beyond the self. Probe the employee about the interpersonal relationships he or she has with others. It might help to provide an organization chart and discuss specifics about what's reasonable to expect of the person's co-workers.

6. Turn empathy into action: Explain how respect and validation are almost always answered with loyalty, enthusiasm, and great work. Once you have established that you support the employee's goals, it is essential that he or she reciprocate with the same supportiveness of others. When the employee becomes fully committed to stepping out of his or her own perspective and seeing things from the viewpoint of others, a new sense of "other-awareness" will help to govern actions.

7. Reward and reinforce: Make it clear that you will hold the employee accountable in a positive way. Revisit the steps he or she is taking to change, and always acknowledge progress, even if it's incremental at first. Most everyone responds well to encouragement. Moving forward, you should make certain that stakeholders continue to monitor and support the process.

The bottom line: Self-improvement begins with self-awareness as well as "other-awareness." The more managers and team members are made mindful of the impact they have on others, the greater their capacity to meet them halfway and embrace change.

Karen Duncum is the owner of Star Performance Consulting, a coaching and training firm based in Santa Barbara, Calif.