How Do You Manage an Unmanageable Employee


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Recently a client came to me with a problem.  She had a long term, dependable, extremely capable employee.  This young man was fast, detail minded, had a great grasp of the company’s systems and processes.  And he had a breath of knowledge that was beyond most of the other team members.  And he had been with the company for more than 8 years.

So, what was the problem?

Well, my client felt like he was becoming slowly but surely, unmanageable.

Flexibility had always been a big development area for him – in fact, he hated it.  She wasn’t sure if it went along with being so detailed minded – but whatever, he hated change, hated to alter the way things were done – in fact he would actually put it back on the client.  “Why can’t they do this or why can’t they do that”  Not very customer focused.

She also mentioned that he had become short and demanding with team members.  In fact, she thought they were beginning to walk on egg shells around him, and even avoid dealing with him for fear of his reactions.

I’ll admit, when I heard all this – it seemed like a fairly simple issue.  Give him a warning and tell him to shape up or ship out.  And I told her as much.

But then she began to list his qualities – he really was amazingly knowledgeable about so many processes in the business; his work quality was top notch; and his work quantity was otherworldly.  And he was committed to his work, and the business.  In fact, his work ethic was so focused that it sometimes became myopic, and he struggled to see other perspectives.

…When I hear people say “he does an excellent job, he’s just really difficult to work with” – well, does he in fact do an excellent job?

She felt torn. How could she deal with these growing problems without potentially losing an otherwise strong team member.

I asked her two questions 1) was he always this way and 2) if something changed, when and what.

After she took a beat to think about it, she said while flexibility was always a development point for him; but no it wasn’t always this bad.  It seemed like as time went on, and his responsibility grew, he was becoming more difficult to work with.  And he was challenging her at every turn.

OK, a quick time out here – being challenged by your team members is actually a good thing.  Their perspectives are different from yours and can be a really valuable addition to your thinking.  So, by all means, let’s keep that quality.

And she agreed, but felt that where it crosses over the line is when decisions are challenged after they’ve been made.  Or someone keeps at you, after you have said ‘this is the way we’re going’.

And, she’s not wrong.

She had tried various strategies – having a heart to heart, being collaborative and inclusive, being directive – and none of it seemed to improve things for very long.  She was exhausted, and admitted she felt like avoiding him too.

You may have found yourself in the same type of situation.  You know you need to address an employee’s performance, but they are REALLY good at the technical side of their job, and they are beyond dependable, and when things are good they are really good – and on and on.  But you have to be balanced about what’s happening.

Listen – really good employees don’t just become really bad employees overnight, for no reason.  Have they taken on too much responsibility?  Are they overloaded?  Maybe they just don’t have the skills you think they have, and they’re feeling underwater – given your expectations.

Maybe there’s something going on in their personal life.  Or maybe they’re not feeling challenged in ways that truly grow them.  You know, once someone shows they are good at something, we do have a tendency to put them in a box and expect them to keep doing ‘that thing’.  But we have to recognize that ‘that thing’ may have become boring for them.

Or maybe it’s something as simple as they need time away, so they can take a breath and get a better perspective.

And the question of being unmanageable?  Well, actually no one is unmanageable.  There are just people that we choose not to manage for one reason or another.  To put it in a phrase, it’s not them, it’s you.

You have to sit down, let them know what you’re seeing and experiencing, what your expectations are, and where they’re falling short.  And let it be a dialogue – how can you help them, what do they need.

Then, be clear about the consequences.  And yes – there MUST be consequences.  You can’t just let this type of behavior go on unchecked.  It will poison the whole team.

Listen – the leader’s job isn’t easy.  And in fact, this is one of the more difficult challenges you’ll face.

But you have to remember, show up with consistency.  If you draw clear boundaries with one team member, but tolerate something different from another team member – it diminishes your leadership.  You have to hold everyone to the same standard – hopefully a standard of excellence.

And don’t l be clouded by thinking  – they’re so good, I don’t want to rock the boat.

When I hear people say “he does an excellent job, he’s just really difficult to work with” – well, does he in fact do an excellent job?  Isn’t part of the job to work effectively with team members and clients.  Why would you think that physical work production is one job requirement – and communication and interpersonal skills is a completely separate job requirement.  They are all requirements of the same job, and ALL the job requirements should be met.

So, when someone says to me – he’s a great employee but no one can work with him.  I say back to them…then, he’s not a great employee.  And that’s what needs to be fixed.

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