Greater Vancouver Making the EXCEPTIONAL Normal Part 5 - Dealing with Difficult Employees

Author: Dale Furtwengler

Dealing with Difficult Employees

20% of your employees will cause 80% of the problems. I don't know the source of the 80/20 rule, but it certainly applies here. Most of your employees will embrace the Making The EXCEPTIONAL Normal system, but there will be a few who offer some interesting challenges. These employees fall into one of three categories the overly optimistic, the excessively cautious and consistently poor performers. What challenges do these employees offer? How do you deal with them? Let's take a look.

Overly optimistic

These employees, regardless of how much they have on their plates, will always volunteer for more work. You know that they can't possibly handle any more work, but they want to be involved in new things. How do you deal with this situation in the weekly meeting without dampening their enthusiasm?

The key is to recognize them for their willingness to help, then remind them of how important their current goals are. Simple language like, "I appreciate your willingness to help with this project, but your top three goals next week are very important, more important than this project. The next time a project comes up and you don't have such a pressing schedule, I'll remember your generous offer."

Note that the language is constructive. It applauds their willingness to help, reminds them that they are currently doing valuable work and dangles the carrot of involvement on future projects. You'll find that whatever disappointment they may experience will be offset by the favorable recognition your words convey.

Excessively cautious

This group of employees is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the overly optimistic. These employees would prefer not to set goals for themselves. When required to do so, they will set very safe (easily attainable) goals for themselves. Obviously, they fear failure.

The reasons for their fear are many and varied. They may lack confidence or self-esteem. They may have been severely chastised or lost their jobs for mistakes made in an earlier employment. The reason is NOT important; you can deal with the behavior without understanding its cause. With the excessively cautious you must gradually build their confidence. How?

During each weekly meeting ask them to stretch - to commit to more goals. In your mind, these are "slam dunk" goals things that you KNOW they will be able to accomplish during the coming week. Why? Success is the only way for them to overcome the fear of failure. You can guarantee their success by not asking them to do more than you KNOW they can handle. If you are going to err, err on the side of conservatism.

Your request will make these employees very uncomfortable. That's why your request MUST:

Why does this approach work? First, you are acknowledging that they feel that they are stretching. Second, you give them permission to fail without retribution, which takes some of the pressure off. Finally, you publicly announce your confidence in them. Who among us wants to disappoint someone who believes in us? Do you? Of course, not. Most of these employees will react the same way.

Make sure that in subsequent meetings you use extensive praise to let them know how happy you are for them and how good they should feel for having achieved their additional goals. Try to avoid the "I knew you could do it" language. It can be taken as condescending or self-serving.

With each successive week, you will see the confidence of these employees grow until finally, a few months later, you'll notice that THEIR goals are becoming more aggressive WITHOUT your prodding. At this point, your marginal performers are becoming solid performers. Who knows? One day they may even be exceptional performers. It all starts with some simple language that provides safety and encouragement to people who are afraid of failure.

Consistently poor performers

Emphasis is placed here on "consistently". Everyone has a bad week now and then. We don't want to be critical of someone who had a bad week. It is the person who seems to have bad weeks every week that creates a problem. Here's the dilemma.

In the first meeting with your employees, you told them that you would not embarrass them or criticize them in front of their peers. It is one of the factors they have learned to trust. You want the rest of the team to know that you realize that this person isn't carrying his/her fair share of the load, but you can't criticize the person in the weekly meeting without losing the trust of all the other employees on the team. What do you do?

You use praise to send messages of encouragement or disappointment. The praise should equal the results accomplished. If Jane accomplished more than she committed to last week, use language like, "Wow, I can't believe you got all that done. I would never have thought you would have been able to achieve those two extra goals". If Jack achieved his goals, but nothing extra, say "Another solid week, Jack. We can always count on you." Now, let's say that Dale doesn't accomplish his goals AGAIN this week. How do you deal with this? Simply withhold praise. Ask Dale what he intends to accomplish next week ask for his new goals and priorities.

Dale and his fellow employees are going to know that you aren't happy with his performance? How? Dale didn't get any praise; everyone else did. The difference in treatment sends the message without every having to utter a word of criticism. The other employees will take comfort in the knowledge that you are aware of Dale's shortcomings and they will respect the fact that you honored your commitment to them.

Obviously, as Dale continues to disappoint you and the team, you will have to have one on one discussions about his performance. Do this quickly. The longer that you allow Dale's poor performance to continue, the more you invite the other team members' performance to migrate down to Dale's level of performance. This is NOT going to help you develop a team of exceptional performers.

If Dale doesn't come around and you have to terminate his employment you will see an interesting phenomenon. The remaining employees' morale will improve. I can hear you saying, "Wait a minute. It doesn't work that way. After a termination, employees stand around the water cooler discussing what a raw deal the fired employee got". You're right. That's normally what happens, but not with the Making The EXCEPTIONAL Normal system. What's different?

In the Making The EXCEPTIONAL Normal system the employees have seen you make repeated attempts to help Dale improve his performance. More than likely, they, too, have contributed ideas to help Dale. In each instance Dale has refused the help and continued to perform poorly. After seeing this happen for weeks on end, the other employees welcome Dale's termination. It affirms that they are doing their jobs well and that is why they are still with the team. Dale wasn't interested in contributing to the team's effort and he is gone. In the minds of the remaining employees, that's the way it should be. That's why you see employee morale improve with the termination.

Wrongful terminations

I am going to open this segment with a caveat. I am not an employment attorney and I do not offer this as legal advice. From conversations with employment attorneys, I have been told that one of the problems business owners and managers face when they terminate employees is that they wait until there is a problem to document the file. The scenario goes like this.

The company does not have a formal performance review process so there is nothing in the file for most employees. An employee's performance drops and the owner or manager initiates discussions with the employee about his/her performance and documents the file. The discussion does not produce changes in performance and the employee is terminated. The employee sues and his/her attorney asks for the employment file on the dismissed employee. Then the attorney asks to see the files on all other employees. When the other files don't show performance review notes, the attorney alleges the dismissed employee was unjustly singled out for termination. The suit is lost and the company pays damages, often significant, to someone who wasn't doing his/her job in the first place. How can you avoid this trap?

During each meeting, make a written note of each employee's goals for the coming week. In the subsequent meeting, indicate which goals were achieved and which were not. For those that weren't achieved, indicate what caused the problem and the solution devised. I am talking simple notes 1 or 2 sentences at most AND only for the goals that weren't achieved. During most weeks there won't be many unachieved goals.

Continue this process for each meeting and keep a copy of your notes. If someone's performance drops, place a copy of the notes in that person's file. Now if an attorney asks for performance history on all other employees, you can simply copy your weekly notes. They will demonstrate that you have tracked performance on all employees in your group each week.

One final thought on wrongful terminations. While no one likes to get involved in litigation, you will have witnesses among your employees. They saw you repeatedly try to help Dale improve his performance and his lack of response to your attempts. These employees can attest to your efforts and the treatment you have afforded all members of your group. I once had an employee come to me after I terminated a friend of hers and say, "It's her own fault. You tried to help her and she wouldn't cooperate." The fact that the terminated person was her friend, I believe, speaks volumes to the fact that employees want to work for owners and managers who recognize them for what they do well and remove people who don't have the team's best interest at heart.

Final thought

One of the most useful observations that I have seen over the years is that owners and managers spend the majority of their time dealing with people who aren't doing what they should while ignoring those who do their jobs well. The simple tips outlined above will help you deal with the 20% of the employees who create 80% of the problems WITHOUT investing a lot of time. They also provide simple ways to recognize YOUR exceptional performers so that they know each and every week how much you value their contributions.

Copyright 2000, Dale Furtwengler, all rights reserved

About the Author:

Dale Furtwengler is a professional speaker, internationally-acclaimed author and a business consultant who uses counter-intuitive thinking to help his clients increase profits without adding resources. For more information on how counter-intuitive thinking can work for you visit For business leaders who would like to get higher prices for their products and services visit

Article Source: - Making the EXCEPTIONAL Normal Part 5 - Dealing with Difficult Employees

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