Merge's Blog

Problem employee? Is it performance, behaviour, or attitude?

If you’re in a position of formal leadership in your organization, sooner or later, you’re going to be faced with the problem employee.  This is the employee who misses deadlines, presents sub-standard work, is frequently tardy or absent, uses the telephone excessively for personal use, complains constantly, or has a tendency to be a “know-it-all.”  You know – the one that takes up a disproportionate amount of your time at work, and if that isn’t enough, keeps you up at night.

So … how are you going to address this problem issue with your employee?  Well, before you sit down for that dreaded “performance discussion” with your ineffective employee, there are several things you should consider.  Here’s one very important one.  Is the problem one of performance, behaviour, or attitude?  This may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but the distinction is critical.  Performance problems have to do with the employee’s inability to complete job responsibilities.  For example – missing deadlines, an inability to take on new tasks, completing shoddy or sloppy work, creating bottlenecks due to an inadequate level of speed – these are examples of performance problems.  Contrast these with problems that have to do with the employee’s behaviour.  Being tardy or absent, taking frequent or extended breaks, using the telephone excessively for personal use, engaging in or causing personality conflicts with others, gossiping, or being insubordinate are all examples of behaviour issues.  Attitude problems take behaviour issues to a greater level of ambiguity.  Employees who display negativity, have a tendency to be “know-it-alls”, complain about everything, or are contemptuous towards their work, clients, management, or the organization fall in this category.

So why does this distinction matter?  In order to manage a problem employee, it’s critical that you evaluate whether the employee’s shortcoming is performance-, behaviour-, or attitude-based.  For any deficiencies that are attitudinal, you MUST be able to restate the problem from a performance or behavioural perspective.  In other words, if you are facing an attitude problem, you MUST CONVERT IT into a performance or behavioural problem before you can take action on it.  You can’t address an employee’s negative attitude (you’ll go around in circles in your discussions and get absolutely nowhere!) but you can say:

When one of the team offers a suggestion you immediately jump in to tell us why it won’t work, it shuts down the dialogue and others are less likely to contribute.  I’d like you to let others completely express their ideas and input before you present your concerns about what could go wrong.

Do you see what I just did?  I described the employee’s specific behaviours so there is less room for debate.  And I’ve given the employee clear information on what to start or stop doing in order to fix the problem.  When you convert attitude problems into performance or behavioural language, you’ll have greater success in getting your employee back on track.

What have been your experiences in dealing with problem employees?

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