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Nightmare employees: The three-step solution

Francie Dalton
Francie Dalton, CMC, is president of Dalton Alliances, Inc., a Maryland-based business consultancy. She is the author of Versatility: How to Optimize Interactions When 7 Workplace Behaviors Are at their Worst.

Whether born of weariness, fear, or complacency, failure to confront bad workplace behaviors can irreparably damage your reputation as a leader. We know this truth intuitively, yet so many leaders struggle with employees whose behavior undermines, even sabotages, their most basic goals.

Bad behavior has many forms: Feuding VPs inciting their fiefdoms toward territorialism and sabotage. Revenue generators presuming exemption from policy and procedure. Peers engaging in abrasive, public haranguing of each other. Other employees suppressing their own competence as a peace-keeping tactic.

With little esteem for what they see as the soft stuff, leaders often choose to ignore problems like these behaviors. Such "trivialities," they allege, aren't worth their attention. Left to fester, however, bad behavior patterns left unchecked can lead to project delays, cost overruns and missed deadlines. That's hardly soft stuff! That's millions of dollars in lost productivity and revenue!

The good news is most of us have more control over bad behavior than we may realize -- and we don't have to become tyrants to wield it. Here's a three-step process for gaining that control.

Step One: Use resonant messaging

Successfully redirecting difficult behavior is accomplished one employee at a time. Messages delivered in one-on-one settings must be thoughtfully tailored to resonate with the persona of each individual. For example:

The bossy employee wants control over results without regard for method. Achieve resonance with these folks by distinguishing between the results achieved and those that could have been achieved with greater regard for method. In other words, show that his quick-fix solutions actually limit success. Now he's listening.

Or: The risk-averse employee wants guarantees or assurances regardless of opportunity cost. To achieve resonance here, you must recognize her fears. Your message should include the idea that risk assessments are welcome and will play an ongoing role in your decision making. Now she can hear you.

Or: The overly aggressive employee wants respect. Help him identify positive behaviors that will earn the respect of others -- and help him realize that being too aggressive is not one of them. Challenge the bully to consistently aim for positive results that will boost his image in the eyes of others. Now you're talking his language.

Or: The status-conscious employee wants the attention on her, regardless of who else may have contributed. To resonate here, your messages must always include the WIIFM proposition (what's in it for me). Once her agenda is in the picture, she's motivated.

Step Two: Acknowledge the upsides

True of almost all nightmarish behaviors is that there's going to be a time or place where that very behavior is needed. Aggressiveness may not be desirable at a team meeting, for example, but it sure comes in handy during a tough negotiation. Explicit acknowledgment of this possibility by one's manager can be all that's required for difficult employees to willingly self-edit and soften the rough edges when needed.

Any strength, manifested in the extreme, becomes a weakness and by extension, nightmare behaviors are actually over-deployed strengths. This perspective has profound implications for successfully mitigating difficult workplace behaviors.

The strength underlying bossy, over-controlling behavior is commitment to implementation. The strength underlying risk-averse behavior is a heightened sense of fiduciary responsibility. Underlying the bully's aggressiveness is an emotional toughness needed to take on unpopular assignments. And underlying the status-conscious behavior of the narcissist is an ambassadorial charisma that charms and persuades.

Step Three: When the first two steps don't work

What if you've done all of the above and your nightmare employee is still...well...a nightmare? Four choices.

Suck it up: Conditions sometimes justify or make unavoidable the retention of nightmare employees. If you're managing such a situation, stay focused on the business aspect of the decision, confine the employees to proscribed functions, and remain alert to opportunities to change the situation.

Bring in a coach: Coaches who are highly skilled at confronting nightmare employees can evoke sustained behavioral improvements that serve both macro- and micro-level

Activate peer pressure: Consider implementing a 360-degree feedback process or some other way for the employee to hear multiple people -- i.e. not just you -- testify to their problematic behavior.

Terminate: When termination is the right decision, you'll know it. If you've reached that point, stop procrastinating and get it done. The alternative is to be complicit in perpetuating both the nightmare behavior and its radial impacts. Failure to prune appropriately is interpreted as either apathy or consent, and it creates the tough-to-overcome perception of weak leadership.

Are your employees seeing what you want them to see?

By Francie Dalton

 |  February 16, 2010; 7:45 AM ET |  Category:  Leadership advice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Our fascination with sociopathic bosses | Next: Cross-silo communication: All talk and no action?


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I apologise, I realize this is not a family column, but there have been some interesting points I wish to address.

1. Should one be persecuted for trying to raise the self esteem of the family environment? Why should ones parents and grandparents feel threatened?

Let's speculate dad was at a football game,
and one call's dad and tells him, I got a pack of dogs with Sharp teeth running through yard,(fended off).

Would a good dad
a. leave the game?
b. call the pound imediately?
c. question and berate the child for landscaping

For added fun, lets' figure that the pack returns and are fended off again, direct confrontation.

What does a good son do?
call dad and "plead" for guidance
call the pound?

and finally after a few days an uncle shows up and him and dad decide to have a sit down with the son.

Should the son be
a. disciplined ( restriction)?
b. warned?
c. kicked out of the house?
d. told it never happened?
e. none of the above?

Posted by: EarthCraft | February 18, 2010 10:44 AM

It was the dramatic "nightmare" term that conned me into this essay--like something from a B-school anthology.

After spending 40+ years in office space, the only "nightmare employees" I ever saw to survive beyond a couple months were (1) senior managers in for-profit enterprises (often owners themselves, or their direct agents), or (2) non-profits' tenured employees (of every level).

For these folks, I don't think there is a 3-step solution . . . maybe a 12-step program for the rest of us.

Posted by: Sophie2008 | February 18, 2010 7:03 AM

With a few rare exceptions, toxic workplaces are the result of poor management.

In my observation, the amount of toxicity in the workplace correlates directly to the number of consultants and coaches contracted by said workplace.

Posted by: BEEPEE | February 18, 2010 1:16 AM

Jeez, what *planet* is this woman on? In my world, supervisors bark orders at their underlings and publicly humiliate them when impossible goals aren't met by any means necessary. When "any means necessary" get employees in various kinds of trouble, they receive no backup whatsoever from supervisors, who are usually off smoking the hookah and being tended to by their handsome manservants.

It's like a rajah with his houseboys. It's the rajah who does all the hard work of course...the houseboys have only to follow commands. "Boy! Come here! Wash my armpits!"

Posted by: dibee | February 17, 2010 11:03 PM

Yes, let's give the ugly korporate "human resources" toadies another good reason to f*ck with people's lives.

Just look at this woman. She is a prime example of why jobs are going to China and India.

As the anti-environmentalists of the 70s used to say, "LET THE B*ST*RDS FREEZE IN THE DARK."

Seriously woman, how do you sleep with yourself every/any night? You deserve a bit, juicy carrot in your mouth.

Posted by: lambcannon | February 17, 2010 8:26 PM

This is just a sack of the usual dimestore management parlor tricks wielded by lousy managers use to try and manipulate employees.

The Fish Rots From The Head.

Posted by: screwjob2 | February 17, 2010 8:20 PM

Title: Saying "No" to parents

1. Constantly arguing with ones parents, grandparents and GREAT grandparents can cause one to be Booted from the family.

1.a -never demand accountability from parents, on education and allowance.

1.b- never remind parents about the neighbors landscaping.Specifically if one is not allowed to landscape.

1.c- never tell parents, grandparents and GREAT grandparents ,"I can be a better parent".

1.D never tell GREAT grandparents how the family should be run.

On the day that parents kick one out of the house...with the grandparents blessing,

2 Ignore the Cancer comment
2.a Ignore the anger
2.b Say good bye to Brothers and Sisters and wish them luck. (wishing one could talk to the Uncle, out of state)

Watch from the edges and protect the family? NOT! at least, don't give that impression. :)

never, never, go back and visit, Pop may be there and sit you down,and say you were right.

and for those that love their family, exploit their weaknesses if you want to effect change.

Posted by: EarthCraft | February 17, 2010 7:27 PM

In this economy, there is NO EXCUSE to put up with a severe-problem / headcase employee that is costing the company grief, time and MONEY.

Do what I always did ... call them in for a private and DIRECT / blunt but fair confrontation ...

outline a detailed, specific deadlined WRITTEN ACTION PLAN (to be signed) by you and the problem employee ...

Make sure the employee acknowledges, understands the action plan, and LISTEN to any all defensive arguments.

Once signed, dated, and the action dates / deadlines for review are understood,
monitor results & behaviors WEEKLY with lots of feedback.

I guarantee the employee will either straighten up immediately,
or get worse.

If the latter result with even worse results and failure (documented weekly)

FIRE THEIR ASS!! On the spot.

There is currently a huge pool of competent, talented team-players out there begging for work.

Always worked for me, and eventually I ended up with positive successful teams that literally managed themselves.

Try it.

Posted by: daveque | February 17, 2010 6:52 PM


Suck it up: Translation - Put up with bad behavior, and let it poison the employee pool.

Bring in a coach: Translation - Spend extra money on a destructive employee.

Activate peer pressure: Translation - Let the other employees put themselves on the line and become (bigger) targets.

If the boss' direct intervention doesn't work, he should cut the employee - not involve the rest of the company.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | February 17, 2010 6:29 PM

Can't do better than you, except to add that a toxic workplace is in the interest of an Employer in these times.

I don't have any numbers, but as a corollary to BRNG's observation, it is much cheaper to keep a bad employee than to expose your toxic workplace to regulatory scrutiny. It is certainly cynical and I personally don't believe reprehensible is too strong a word, but keeping a bad employee who wants to be fired denies them any social safety net. It's that threat that counts in keeping everyone else in line.

Posted by: gannon_dick | February 17, 2010 6:09 PM

Can't do better than you, except to add that a toxic workplace is in the interest of an Employer in these times.

I don't have any numbers, but as a corollary to BRNG's observation, it is much cheaper to keep a bad employee than to expose your toxic workplace to regulatory scrutiny. It is certainly cynical and I personally don't believe reprehensible is too strong a word, but keeping a bad employee who wants to be fired denies them any social safety net. It's that threat that counts in keeping everyone else in line.

Posted by: gannon_dick | February 17, 2010 6:08 PM

Not sure what you are talking about.

In the current employment environment, it is management, not employees, who are behaving badly.

I have worked employment law/ HR consulting intermittently over the past 10-20 years, and have never before seen either side so taking advantage of the other as management now is because of the buyer's market for employee services.


Posted by: brng | February 17, 2010 4:55 PM

I'm sorry, I understand forgiving the self-suppressing or the risk-adverse employee, but if an employee's personal behavior led to project delays, cost overruns or missed deadlines - why wouldn't you immediately terminate the person?

Sure, I understand the second chance - but all of these behaviors you list warrant immediate termination, not hand-holding.

Believe me, in this economy, you can find someone else who'll do the job better without the baggage.

Posted by: DonRitchie | February 17, 2010 4:34 PM

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