422 — Managing The Problem Employee

Nick, the managing partner in a professional services firm, was irritated. “We have a 15 year employee who at first communicated very well and was promoted to Office Manager. In the last few years he has begun to hold information too close to his chest. Now people see him as a roadblock. I am very uncomfortable with the situation I haven’t talked with him about it. What should I do?”

This office manager may be responding to something that happened outside of the office, but most likely he is responding to something that has changed in the office. It’s often difficult to see what has changed, because changes are typically slow and seem natural, almost invisible. Here are steps you can take to understand and change situations that lead to difficult behavior.

What Should I Do?

What people do depends largely on their situation. Most people respond reasonably to situations, from their point of view. If you want to understand why people do what they do, stand back and look at their situation — perhaps ask the person about it. If Nick can understand that his Office Manager is behaving appropriately, from that manager’s view, he will be well on the way to solving the problem.

The first step in problem solving is identifying who has the problem. Here the employee, the “problem manager”, doesn’t have a problem. Nick and other people who see this manager as a roadblock have the problem. Nick’s problem won’t go away until he finds a way to have the employee own it. One guide to a good culture is, “People like to be involved in decisions that affect them.” People who are affected by a problem should be involved in the solution to that problem. In this case the employee should be involved in developing the solution for at least three reasons:

1. So he will take ownership of the problem.
2. When he takes ownership, he will be motivated to correct it.
3. He probably knows already how to correct it but he hasn’t acted because he doesn’t see it as a problem.

Finally, all company situations, including “problems”, are opportunities to develop the work culture — to improve relationships, communication, trust, involvement, and teamwork. Nick can use this “problem” as an opportunity for positive cultural change.

What Causes Changed Behavior?

The Office Manager’s change over 15 years didn’t happen in a vacuum. Nick needs to know if something outside of work has affected the employee; a divorce, ill family member, or something else that might have caused withdrawal or depression. Assuming there is nothing at home, look to the office.

Begin With the Leadership

Perhaps Nick and the other partners in the company have inadvertently done something that set the stage for the manager’s new behavior. As you do this keep in mind that systems, such as companies, are highly coherent. A behavior pattern in one part is usually found in other parts. When there is an issue at a low level in an organization, you’ll almost certainly find it at the highest level as well. Nick should meet with his partners and ask, “What could we do as a group to make clear, by what we do every day, that we do not want to hold information close to our chest?”

These are difficult and usually uncomfortable questions for any group to discuss. Leadership groups often use a third-party to help facilitate such discussions. See 421.

Don’t Get Bogged Down With Analysis

Looking backward and trying to analyze the many and complex causes of human behavior can be a quagmire. Managers are sometimes tempted to treat people problems as they would treat a faulty engine. But people are not machines that you can disassemble to find the busted part. With people, rather than trying to do a “root cause analysis”, it is usually better and less painful to look at where to go and opportunities to get there.

A First Action Step

Nick might also arrange a small meeting including himself, the Office Manager, a few other people who have expressed a concern, and one or two other partners — their presence signals the importance of the issue. At that meeting, Nick can discuss the company’s need for improved communication. He can describe a few examples of problems and of successes, and also share what the partners are doing to improve their own communications.

Don’t Point Fingers and Blame

It is essential not to blame a person or point a finger. Employees should understand that managers see problems as a system issue and not a personal issue. Pointing fingers is like saying, “The hole is in your end of the boat, so I’m OK”. Blaming causes defensiveness, not a quality you want in your organization. Have the members discuss the issue, but don’t jump too quickly to action at this first meeting. Stay with step one of the 4-step decision process. Ask the members of the group to reflect during the next two weeks on how they experience communications in the firm and what they might like to do personally, or suggest that the partners might do, to improve things. Schedule another meeting in two weeks to discuss and understand the situation further, to hear people’s ideas for changes, and to agree on who will do what.

Follow Through Is Essential

Broad cultural or system issues, such as communications or relationship problems, are among the toughest issues managers face. Solving these deep seated problems requires steady attention from the leadership group. This means regular, visible and open meetings focused on moving forward, one small exploratory step at a time. Only when the leadership group shows serious commitment will everyone change from the way things are. As I’ve said often elsewhere, if a cultural problem is delegated to a low level for action, nothing will change.

All Paths Lead to Rome

Once top management is clear to itself and to others that a particular problem needs attention, there are many approaches. Here I’ve mentioned two. Because cultural problems are all closely related it may be just as effective to initiate a change in some other related area. If you can’t decide where to begin, just ask any employee for a suggestion and start there. Culture change is an evolutionary process, the next step depending on what happened when you took your last. Once you choose your destination, i.e. what qualities you want or what you want to change, if you remain open and responsive to what happens at each step, it hardly matters where you begin, or which path you take — you will arrive safely.

cc 422 — © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.

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