Every company has “problem people”. Their behavior ranges from poor performance, to poor attitudes, to departmental morale busters. Whatever shape and size the problem is, your solution should demonstrate the qualities you want more of in the company. Old-style top-down autocracies traditionally point the finger at the employee and say, “You’re a problem and we’re going to do something about YOU.” The solution was usually “coaching”, “training”, reassignment or firing, none of which demonstrates the kind of qualities you want in your workplace.
There’s a Better Way
The company was a unionized, major Southern California distribution center. The seven person cleaning (sanitation) crew had two problem employees. They combined poor performance with bad attitudes. Their traditional, autocratic supervisor tried everything he knew. He shouted, got angry, lectured them on their bad performance and threatened they’d better straighten up or . . . . . . Yes, you’ve seen his kind a dozen times. The other five members of the crew performed at an adequate level, but were hardly inspired. They didn’t like the supervisor’s behavior either. No one likes being threatened. This supervisor didn’t know any other way. Fortunately the distribution center manager did.
Using an Opportunity to Change
An increase in the workload gave the DC manager an opportunity to transfer the supervisor to the overworked area. Before doing that the DC manager asked the cleaning crew if they would be prepared to manage the cleaning themselves. They were thrilled and over four weeks, mostly on their own time, they prepared detailed spreadsheets describing how they would organize the cleaning process. These detailed plans, which the crew pinned on bulletin boards for feedback, were impressive. Even more impressive was what happened behind the scenes. The five-members told the two problem employees that they had to shape up and get on board or the proposed changes wouldn’t work. Failure was not an option. This was peer pressure at its strongest.
Within two months the distribution center was spotless, achieving the highest possible rating from an independent assessment group. As if by magic, the two “problem employees” were problems no longer. There were now seven highly motivated, enthusiastic and productive employees — fully engaged.
cc 412 — © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.