First Time Leadership Challenges: Dealing With Difficult Employees
I asked a friend who is considering her first step into leadership, “What are you most worried about when taking your new role? I’ll make that the title of my next post.”
She said, “Managing someone who doesn’t want to work and is a constant pain in my ass.”
I almost kept that as the title because it’s real. Employees who make it harder to lead, disrupt the team, or do not contribute their share, elicit a strong reaction. We want them gone. The team rarely disagrees, and, in some cases, they are vocal about getting rid of the pain.
The dominant management theory talks about how much a lousy employee costs the business. It explains how much a low performer hurts team morale and increases attrition. First-time leaders are told that tolerating a low performer will make everyone else think they are weak. From there, everyone will start to take advantage of their softhearted nature. For new leaders, the low performer seems to undermine their authority.
Everything is pushing you to do the wrong thing. Leadership starts with the other person. Leaders are expected to improve the team and mentor team members to become high performers. If everyone did fine on their own, we wouldn’t need leaders.
Leading VS Managing
Management theory wants leaders to manage up or manage out. That translates into showing them the door if they aren’t high performers. Leadership theory takes an entirely different approach.
We take over the team, and everyone is at a different point on the performance range relative to each other. Each team member is below, at, or exceeding expectations. Management theory evaluates each team member relative to all the others, while leadership theory evaluates each member’s change from their original baseline.
The goal of management is to put everyone into the exceeds expectations part of the range. The purpose of leadership is to improve everyone as much as possible. Leadership takes work. Management is just paperwork.
What feels like the right thing to do and what it feels like everyone wants leaders to do will come back to hurt them in the long run. Management makes performance relative, and that promotes a competitive environment. Team members that compete against each other to be in the highest performer category will not collaborate. Team members who don’t want to find themselves on the bottom won’t either.
People worry about getting credit for their work and don’t want to share credit. They also don’t want to be at fault when something goes wrong and want to ensure blame is assigned.
Top and bottom performers create a performance floor and ceiling. It reinforces the mentality that people are getting paid to be the best, not to get better.
Management creates toxic teams.
What’s A Leader’s Approach To Performance Management?
The interesting offshoot of continuous improvement; the leader’s approach to low performers is the same as their approach to high performers. Leaders incentivize improvement. The more significant the progress, the greater the reward. Fairness becomes an immediate concern.
How can it be fair for a low performer who becomes an average performer to get a bigger reward than a high performer who maintains their level? Here’s a quick metaphor. The business pays $2 for every bag of groceries that are delivered. The team’s highest performer delivers an average of 5 bags and gets paid the most for that performance.
A low performer starts out delivering 1 bag on average and improves to deliver 3 bags. The team’s highest performer maintains their 5 bag average. The low performer gets compensated based on their contribution, and so does the high performer. To keep advancing, everyone needs to improve.
Leadership theory sets performance metrics to measure improvement and communicates the expectation of continuous improvement to achieve continuous advancement. Leaders are evaluated on how well the team improves and incentivized based on those same metrics applied across the team. Clear expectations and well-aligned incentives are critical for leadership.
In poorly run businesses, expectations and incentives don’t line up with obvious consequences, which often happens with publicity goals. The company says meeting their sustainability or employee retention goals are high priorities, but those metrics hold the lowest weight for leadership evaluations. Leaders read between the lines and prioritize appropriately.
Leaders Make People Better
Leaders make people better, and managers expect people to become better. There is a clear distinction between the active and passive approach, which defines every contrast between managers and leaders. In previous posts, I talk about allowing the team to hold me accountable, so I have the right to hold them accountable.
My team can hold me accountable for taking an active role in their improvement. To succeed, I must set clear expectations for our partnership.
I am accountable for defining the business’s goals and connecting them to the team goals I define. The team member is accountable for setting their goals to support the team in achieving the collective goals. Since one of the team’s goals will be improvement, that will also be an individual goal.
I am accountable for creating a learning plan and making resources available to help each team member reach their improvement goal. In some cases, I will be part of the training. The team member is responsible for following the plan and taking advantage of those resources.
I am accountable for regularly giving the team members feedback on how well they meet expectations. If they aren’t meeting the baseline to support the team’s collective goals, I need to update the learning plan and resources. The team member is accountable for following the plan and taking advantage of those resources.
If that sounds like a performance improvement plan, it is, but I have framed it in the context of the original continuous improvement goal. I am accountable for setting everyone up for success no matter where they fall until I can’t anymore or they give up.
Even Leaders Have Limits
What I mean by “I can’t anymore” covers people who follow the plan and do not improve. That scenario is rare, but it does happen. Some people are not competent to do their job, and there is no feasible training plan. If the plan should have worked and did not, it’s hard truth time.
Most people I have fired give up on the learning plan. Anyone not meeting their goals to support the team and isn’t progressing on their learning plan gets a final warning. From there, I follow HR’s process for termination. I switch from leading to managing the team member, and that’s important.
The team member did not respond to the leadership paradigm, so I must manage them. Leadership works with team members who partner with their leader. Both people are accountable for holding to their commitments. When a team member gives up on their goals and improvement plans, they are no longer a partner. They must be managed, or all the management theory impacts of a bad team member come true.
What’s important about being a leader first is the team sees me treat someone who is struggling the same way I treat high performers. Everyone on the team will struggle at some point in their career, and they must know I won’t just toss them out.
The unspoken part of leading low performers is everyone is human. We go through things both at and outside of work. Leadership starts with people, and although I won’t pry into someone’s personal life, I can tell when a person is working through personal challenges. I can be supportive, and the team can too. There is a path back until they give up.
On the other hand, the team is picking up after the low performer and doing parts of their jobs. With good culture, teams are on board with continuous improvement. As a leader, I have defined the limits of our support and understanding. Using the management paradigm, I define what happens when we pass those limits.
Following The Process
Every business has its own process for terminating an employee. Everything must be documented. Every coaching session, performance review, sit down to discuss the failure to meet expectations, learning plan, revision, and response must be documented. That much is universal for US and EU-based businesses.
It is a best practice to keep your leader in the loop on people who are struggling and what’s being done to correct the problem. Keep everything positive, upbeat, and hopeful. Before moving to each phase in the process, inform the next level up, especially the next one. Some leaders want to step into the process themselves before it escalates or be part of this next step.
HR is the gatekeeper for the process. Before going to HR, realize they are not on the leader’s or the team member’s side. They exist to keep the business from getting sued by employees or fined by regulators. The best way to frame any interaction with them is to explain how their help leads to better compliance with policy or reduces liability risk. It’s critical never to say more than is absolutely necessary to anyone from HR. Assume anything said will be broadcasted up the leadership chain and be used against you if possible.
I need to progress as quickly as possible through the process while still being compliant. My leadership style is very Yoda, but my management style is Vader. I only give up when the team member gives up. I will go to the mat for people, but once they stop putting in the time and effort, so do I. This is a critical side for leaders to cultivate.
By this time, everyone on the team is also at their breaking point. I need to isolate the team member while I go through the process so they don’t do any more damage. I cannot give them anything business-critical to work on either.
In most companies, what I outlined in the earlier sections is enough to start the termination process. It can take a month or more if I don’t take an active role in moving it forward. I want it done in a week or less, but everything depends on HR’s process.
I must work on backfilling the role. If HR lets me, I post the job while going through the process and interview new candidates. My goal is to not lose headcount as part of firing the employee. That happens a lot. People question the need because the team is still delivering on time while that employee is producing nothing.
I emphasize how much stress the team is under and the high risks of missing a deadline. I talk about attrition and morale. It’s more fuel to speed the process while protecting the team’s total headcount.
Being Transparent With The Team Member
There is no reason to hide what is going on. Too many managers get themselves into trouble by becoming passive-aggressive. Leaders can open themselves up for liability with any pattern or mistreatment, no matter how silly it seems on the surface. A lot of that behavior comes from the tension created by secrecy.
I refuse to be mean about the process, but I am not moving silently. I tell the employee what I am doing now and what happens next. Their firing should not come as a surprise. It may be evident to everyone else, but some low performers are oblivious. They think the silence and reassignment are positive signs instead of their last weeks with the company.
Each interaction is direct and to the point. I don’t apologize or add any platitudes. I no longer need to explain myself. The business establishes the process, and I do not defend it. I am following policy. This is what I am doing and what you need to do. Here is what I will do next and what that means for you. Done.
I have had employees try to get under my skin or start an argument. My only response is, “If you become inappropriate or disruptive, I will terminate you immediately. The conversation is over, and you should return to your assignment.” Some employees work to undermine me with other team members or take their anger out on others. I give them one warning and terminate them the second time it happens. At most companies, this follows established policy.
It eases the final termination conversation. There are several tense conversations along the way, but that is a better outcome than one big confrontation at the end. They deserve the respect of being told what’s going on. They are grown-ups, and treating them like one is the best way to go.