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When is enough, enough?

How do you handle that difficult team member who isn’t performing? At what point do you say enough is enough? 

The employee who gives pushback every time you correct them, the complaints about that person not pulling their weight, mistakes combined with that “I don’t really care” attitude. It can feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. 

They take a lot of time and energy to manage. When their name is mentioned, it triggers you into reaction mode, bracing for the next problem that could be coming your way.

If you’ve been in business for a while, you’ll likely have had someone like this at some point. Pareto’s Law would say that if you had 10 employees, there is at least one who is exceptional and one that is difficult to manage. I’ve seen this many times with the thousands of business owners I’ve coached.

Some of the strategies that have worked best with my clients that could also work for you. But keep in mind I am coming from a business coach perspective. So make sure that you check with your HR specialist about the legal aspects which aren’t covered here.

The Litmus test

Remember in science class, you learned how to use litmus paper to tell if a liquid is acid, neutral or alkaline? When litmus paper is dipped into the liquid it changes colour, then you check the colour against the chart to determine if its acid, neutral or alkaline. Red is acidic, green is neutral and purple is alkaline.

Let’s apply the litmus test to your team member to see what effect they’re having.

  1. The Team

How is the behaviour of this person affecting the rest of the team? Is the team getting frustrated and discouraged, are they feeling demotivated, or is there any bullying involved? Is the overall performance of the team being affected? 

  1. The Business

Is this person’s performance affecting how long jobs are taking, or causing too many mistakes at extra cost? Is their behaviour spilling over and affecting your clients or your professionalism as a business? 

  1. You

Are you constantly putting out fires caused by this team member, or every time you hear their name it triggers you into anxiety around what could go wrong next?

I worked with a husband/wife couple in an engineering business with a team of around ten, who had an employee who was their most knowledgeable team member. But his attitude was terrible, it was so bad that the wife admitted to me one day that she didn’t even like going into the office in case she might see him. 

But they both felt powerless, worried about losing him with all the work they had on, and they didn’t think they could replace him at that higher skill level. This guy knew it which made things even worse.

After a few weeks of us working together I encouraged them to take control back. So they started calling the shots again. He was given the opportunity to change his attitude or move on. He decided to move on.

It only took a couple of months to find a good replacement, while the rest of the team stepped up to another gear. They had their business back and enjoyed coming to work again, also the rest of the team was much happier.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall

If you have a problem team member it’s important to take a look in the mirror. Good coaches know that the business is a reflection of the business owner. Your strengths, weaknesses, success and mistakes reflect in your business. The more you work on yourself, the better your business will perform.

  1. Did things go wrong at the hiring stage or has this developed over time?

Only by looking back can we see what really happened. It’s important to learn from any mistakes you might have made so you don’t have to repeat them.

  1. Do you have a good hiring process in place that takes into account attitude not just skills? 

Have you set the right structure in place including written checklists, best practices and training so your team members have the opportunity to succeed? Notice I said opportunity – they still have to do their part.

  1. Are you giving each team member regular feedback, do they know if they are winning or losing?

When we help clients put these systems in place the culture improves and the team takes on more responsibility as the standards are much clearer.

  1. Do you know everyone on your team well, like the names of their partner/children and what’s most important to them outside work?

Business owners and managers who show their team that they really care, have better team culture with employees who are more likely to step up when needed. Also, their best employees usually stay longer. 

What’s changed?

When you first employed that team member there must have been some traits and skills you liked. If they were a good performer initially then what changed? Did you recognise the early red flags? 

Maybe something major is happening at home, their marriage might be in trouble, or a family member is dealing with a health crisis. They could be clashing with another team member or if could simply be the wrong job for them.

It’s important to find out early what your team members can and can’t do. Don’t assume, especially in the 90-day trial period. 

My drainage client recently discovered some large mistakes on jobs from his foreman that cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix. When questioning him and his team this confirmed suspicions that he was not leading the team well and they were getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of direction. After some further training it became clear that this guy was not foreman material, he was in the wrong role. They are now looking at other options for him. If this was done earlier it would have saved a lot of frustration, time and money.

I know I need to do something, but where to start?

One tool we use with clients that works well is our review process. It’s a great way to talk about the elephant in the room without the awkwardness.

By the end of this process it’s really clear to both of you if they are meeting the standard and a track of what to do next. 

My building client had a foreman who wasn’t leading the team well and pushing back at any constructive feedback. My client didn’t like confrontation so he let these things slide a bit too long. 

Once we implemented the review process, the line was very clear on what was not acceptable anymore. The foreman stayed for a short couple of months then left. They discovered some significant mistakes which cost them a few weeks to fix, but at least they could get back on track. 

It’s your move

If you have a difficult team member, they will be costing you a lot more than their salary.  Moving forward there are basically two choices, carry on as you are and hope things get better (which is unlikely), or you can start being proactive and dealing with the issues.

If you challenge them now, they have a chance to become better. Alternatively, if they are in the wrong place, you are not doing them or you any favours by leaving them there. 

Whatever happens next is up to you but being proactive always gives you better options. 

Article supplied by Daniel Fitzpatrick

Published in the Business, Health & Safety and Environment Section in WIRED Issue 70 / September 2023 by Fencing Contractors NZ