You may have one of them on your team. Or several. The symptoms vary. Maybe they’re unproductive or unmotivated. Maybe they stir up issues on your team. Maybe they’re the center of office drama. Maybe they’re entitled, demanding or rude. Maybe they’re missing critical details and failing to meet commitments. Or maybe they’re just unaware. You feel like a teacher must have felt when dealing with a unruly student. You’re frustrated, tired of beating your head against a wall and your efforts don’t seem to be working. Yes, this is a full-grown adult on your team and the thought running through your head is, “I’ve got a problem child”.
When mentioning a problem child, you likely know the type. Whether the issue is personality, performance, attitude or disruptive behavior they leave quite the wake behind them in the organization. They’re tolerated by team members, disruptive or avoided all together. And they’re oblivious to it, or worse, indifferent to it. Their numbers or your passivity have kept them around, but their personality is weighing on the organization. It’s time to do something. For the good of the team and for the good of this individual change must take place.
I’ve not yet met anyone who truly wants to be the problem child. Sure, some are brash and love the idea of being disruptive or a maverick, but that’s different than being a problem. While they may be oblivious to their impact on the organization or indifferent to others, the health of the team needs you to take action. You need to take action for your own leadership development and to protect and grow a healthy organization. Every day that goes by with a problem child wreaking havoc in the organization the more ingrained the precedent is being set in your organization. I can’t promise that it will go well. That’s not always in the cards. Sometimes the problem child is just that, a problem. They may make a lot of noise and try to sway others in resistance to the feedback you’ve delivered. If that’s the case, they’ve only reinforced your concerns. Regardless, you must level up and have the conversation.
If you take issue with a team member’s personality, performance, attitude or behavior and you do nothing about it, you carry responsibility for their impact on the organization. You have a responsibility to level up and have the hard conversation.
So, what do you do? You can let them go (transition, fire, layoff, or whatever P.C. term you prefer). You can reprimand them and demand change. You can put them on a self-managed development plan. You can hire a coach and do a deep dive with them giving them every chance to succeed.
Whatever your course, you need to do these three things:
- Be honest and be crystal clear. Are you at your limit with this individual? Is this a put up or shut up moment for you? Are you wanting them to get their act together or get off the bus? If that’s the case, be honest. Be honest with yourself and be honest with them. It’s the right thing to do. Problematic personnel don’t come around to change via subtle messaging. Many need a wake-up call to make change. It’s your job to give them that wake-up call. Don’t shroud it in “development” when it’s really a do or die situation for this person’s career. Sit down with them and let them know the reality of the situation. They’re an adult and so are you. Be candid, be respectful and be very clear with expectations. If their job is on the line, let them know that. If a promotion is in jeopardy then be clear. If they’re going to be removed from a team then be forthcoming with that information. You’re not respecting the individual by dancing around the topic. Nor are you doing so by avoiding it. Leave nothing to ambiguity.
- Assess willingness to engage. You won’t be able to gauge willingness if you don’t take a direct approach. If you position a process as leadership development when it’s really meant as a correctional process you’re misleading the individual and crippling yourself in the process. You must give yourself the opportunity to truly assess their willingness to participate. To do that, see how they respond. Be prepared to give them the night or the weekend to consider their commitment to a change process. Let them stew with it and come back with a thoughtful response so you can assess their position outside of the raw emotion of the initial conversation. You’ll let them know their progress will be measured, you’ll be engaged in the process and the expectation is they’ll show evidence of change in the way they show up in the organization. Some will commit heartily. Others will commit with hesitation. Some will blow smoke to buy time to find another job or rally a resistance. And others will refuse immediately and opt for an exit. You can easily work with the heartily committed and the hesitantly willing. Even those who refuse and opt to quit offer you a clear path. The difficulty comes with those who want to buy time to line something else up or engage a passive resistance. You must follow up to gauge whether someone is wholly committed to the process. Evidence of a person’s willingness is shown through tangible change efforts and adhering to the agreed upon plan.
- Decide on a course of action and measurement. Outline specific areas of improvement, how it will be measured, and who will be measuring it. Make the timeline and measurement very clear as well as the consequences. “If you make these changes you will retain your position, grow in the company, be in good standing, etc. If you do not make these changes then you’ll be asked to leave immediately or be removed from a specific team or responsibility”. Write it out. Sign it yourself, have them sign it, and hand them a copy. Refer back to the measurements in your follow up conversations. Set your follow up meetings immediately. If you’re managing the entire process set a standing weekly meeting for the entirety of the process. If you have a coach working with the individual, introduce them within 24 hours and ensure their first interaction is scheduled.
If they have committed to the change process, then embrace their commitment, support them and prepare them for the hard work that is to come. It’s not an easy journey and they need to know you’re going to walk through their development with them to the extent you’re able. What change do you need to see by what date to show evidence of progress? The initial steps can be extremely simple (show up to meetings on time, leave your laptop, phone or tablet off in meetings, learn a certain task in the business, apologize to your peers for xyz, meet with a coach weekly, etc). You’re looking for measurable progress. As you see measurable progress, even in the small things, you have a great foundation on which to build. 360 feedback assessment, other reputationally based profiles and coaching offer great resources to support an individual through this process.
If the person with whom you’re working expresses an unwillingness to step into change then follow through on the consequences. It’s their choice to change or not. So, it’s their choice to stay with the company, in the role, on a particular team, etc. If you need to see change to retain the individual and they refuse to step into the change process then they have chosen their path. Frame it as their choice and help them on their way. They do have agency over their decisions.
Sometimes you’ll find the problem child isn’t as much of a problem as you thought. You’ve had them mislabeled all along. They’ve just been allowed to go their own way with little feedback. You may find that you, your team and the organization have played a part in creating the circumstances and all that is needed is some guidance. You need to step up and lead, mentor, encourage and to show the way to success.