As part of our BusinessAccelerator® program, I hold weekly Q&A coaching calls with any clients who want to join us on Monday mornings. I love these calls. My favorite part is being able to directly address the real, individual problems my clients are facing. Almost every week, I get a question like this: “One of my team members is being difficult. What should I do?”
The details look different. Maybe it’s a problem with passive aggression or gossip. Maybe they’re not delivering results. Maybe they’re failing to practice ownership. Maybe they’re managing their responsibilities poorly. Behind each example is a problematic behavior.
My clients are often torn. They care about their team members and value what these contributors have to offer, especially if they’ve been with the company for a long time. But the problematic behavior is undermining performance and hurting the team.
The first solution in these kinds of cases isn’t firing. It’s coaching.
Coaching your team is an essential part of leadership. In order to do it effectively, you need to be bought into three beliefs.
First, you have to believe in the maturity of your team member. Sometimes we don’t talk about hard things, because we assume others can’t handle it. But usually they can. Adulthood demands it.
Second, you have to believe your team member wants to be the best they can be. Who wants to live into the worst versions of themselves? We all have a shadow side. But we aspire to be better. We aspire to growth. Believing these ideas lays the groundwork for the confidence you need as you walk into these conversations.
Third, you need to assume that you don’t have the full story. Good leaders begin by asking questions. Here are a few I recommend considering.
What’s happening in their personal lives?
Sometimes, problems at work are explained by problems at home. Loss, illness, divorce and marital issues, problems with sleeping or parenting—all of these can bleed into work. We’re not nearly as effective at compartmentalizing as we like to pretend.
Slow down and consider what you know. What have they mentioned to you or to their manager? If they haven’t mentioned anything, it’s probably time to ask.
Start by mentioning the specific changes you’ve noticed. You might say something like, “I’ve noticed that you’re late to work multiple times each week, even though you never used to be. Your fuse seems shorter, too. Are you okay? Is there something happening at home that you’re carrying with you into work?”
If your team member dodges the question or chooses not to share, it’s important to respect their privacy. You can move on to clarifying expectations in that case. But if you find out your team member is navigating a significant life struggle, I suggest creating a plan that makes work more manageable. You could fire them, it’s true. But accommodating their needs for a season is almost always more profitable than rehiring. It’s also usually the right thing to do.
What can this accommodation look like? You might scale back their workload, identifying their most essential work and delegating the rest to other team members or outside vendors. You might encourage them to take a temporary leave of absence, creating a plan to tie the team over until they return. You might allow them to work from home or have a few hours off each week. Ask what they think would be helpful and solve the problem together.
This change should only last for a season. Setting a concrete date at the outset when you’ll revisit the situation is helpful for clarifying expectations.
Have you clarified your expectations?
My clients know I believe in asking the question, “What about your leadership led to this result?” Behavioral issues often result from our failure as leaders to communicate expectations.
Did your team member know you expected them to lead the meeting or understand what that should look like? Have you said that you don’t tolerate gossip at your company? Have you been clear about the metrics that define success?
Teams imitate their leaders. If we want our teams to take ownership when they fall short, we need to do the same. You might start by saying something like, “I’ve realized I’ve had an expectation I failed to communicate, and I didn’t set you up to succeed. Can we talk about what I’d like to see moving forward and why?”
This approach decriminalizes the offense. Unspoken expectations go unmet. Voicing them allows you to create accountability moving forward.
What resources are they missing?
As leaders, we sometimes create an impossible dynamic for our team members. We scale their responsibilities without increasing their resources. Most managers complain they don’t have enough time, money, or people. Not all these complaints are true. But before blaming your team’s performance, take stock on whether you’ve provided reasonable resources to attain the results you expect.
You should pay special attention to this question if . . .
- your team member has taken on an ambitious project.
- management responsibilities have increased or shifted.
- it’s a high-pressure season in your industry.
- you notice your team member has started working significantly longer hours.
It’s your job to resource your priorities. If your team member is under-resourced, start by reevaluating the priorities they’re responsible for. If you decide they’re all important, create a strategy for how to make sure they’re distributed reasonably.
What is the path to improvement?
If you’ve spent much time in Human Resources, you’re probably familiar with the term “Performance Improvement Plan.” It’s just what it sounds like. It outlines incremental improvement you expect to see in your team member’s performance over time.
The milestones you include will vary situation to situation. But they should be specific and measurable when possible.
When you put someone on a Performance Improvement Plan, it’s important to document carefully instances of success or failure in meeting these expectations. If you do decide to terminate an employee, this kind of documentation can help protect you from legal action.
Once a Performance Improvement Plan has been created, you should revisit it regularly. Set up the expectation that your initial confrontation is the beginning of an ongoing conversation. If your team member reliably meets their benchmarks, they have the opportunity to grow, and you have the opportunity to continue working with them. If they fail to rise to the occasion, it’s probably time to part ways.
Coaching conversations are rarely easy. They require the courage to tell the truth and the compassion to care. But it’s better than searching endlessly for the perfect new hire in pursuit of the perfect team. Perfection is an illusion. But growth is always possible.
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