Every leader eventually has to deal with a problem employee. It’s inevitable.
In my experience, executives generally do one of two things in this situation — and neither is ideal. They either take the easy way out and ignore the problem, or they overreact and fire the difficult employee.
While I’m a big supporter of hiring slow, firing fast, and only hiring A players, I also believe leaders need to tackle personnel issues head-on. The first step is to understand why the employee is underperforming; then, you can find a solution to the problem.
What you don’t need to do is immediately dismiss the employee. After all, you — or someone on your team — liked the employee enough to hire them.
Repairing a relationship with a problem employee sends a strong signal to everyone in the company that leadership cares about everyone on the team. It also makes financial sense. The cost of losing an employee is around $15,000, according to Work Institute’s “2019 Retention Report.” Addressing problem employees can save you a lot on recruiting and turnover costs.
As management legend Peter Drucker once said, “Organizations exist to make people’s strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.” Here are six steps to help you repair a relationship with a challenging team member so you get them back on track and contributing to the growth of your business.
1. Identify the Problem
The first step is to determine the root of the issues you are having with your team member. There is always a reason for the behavior, and it’s your responsibility to sit down with the employee to figure out what it is.
Before you have a hard talk, take a moment to think about why you respect your colleague. Express your gratitude to your team member first, then start the conversation. Ask probing, open-ended questions to get to the heart of the issue, and make sure any examples of performance problems you discuss are specific and accurate.
2. Decide on a Solution
Once you have identified the problem, work with your team member to reach an agreeable solution. Don’t settle for quick fixes — you don’t want to have the same conversation about the same problem one week or one month later. If there’s a task or project that’s not being completed correctly, find out what needs to change.
Be open to taking risks and rethinking how the employee’s work gets done. Thinking big may get you to an effective solution you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
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3. Agree to the Consequences
I can’t stress this enough: Be sure that both you and the employee agree to the consequences if performance doesn’t improve. For example, a verbal warning may be warranted for the first performance issue, a written reprimand for the second, and termination for the third. You owe it to the employee to establish clear ground rules that will guide them going forward.
4. Set SMART Goals
Once the employee knows what needs to change, set up the specific goals and outcomes related to that change. Wherever possible, give the team member the freedom to chart their own path toward success.
Make sure the goals are SMART — that is, specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. That way, you both know where you want to go, how you’re going to get there, and what could potentially get in the way. SMART goals give employees clear, concrete accomplishments to strive for. Plus, the employee’s confidence will be bolstered when each goal is reached.
5. Coach Problem Employees to Success
Once a path forward has been identified, it is vital that you stay in regular communication with the employee. Hold recurring one-on-one meetings where you can discuss progress or any obstacles that have popped up. These meetings are part of a healthy system of communication and problem-solving, and they’ll ensure the employee stays on track toward achieving their goals.
6. Recognize and Celebrate Achievements
Everyone likes a public shout-out from the boss. Show how much the employee’s efforts to improve mean to you by letting everyone in the company know your feelings.
Also, don’t underestimate the power of a handwritten thank-you note. Sure, it’s old school, but your team member will appreciate the time and effort you took — and your recognition will provide additional motivation to keep them moving forward.
Your team members are your company’s most valuable asset and one of the main reasons clients buy your product or service. Without great team members, operational execution suffers, which means your business will also suffer. When you follow these five steps, you can turn a problem employee into the great team member you know they can be.
Andy Bailey is the founder and CEO of Petra Coach, as well as the author of the Amazon best-seller No Try Only Do: Building a Business on Purpose, Alignment, and Accountability and a new book, Vitamin B (For Business).