Monday, October 17, 2011

How to contain challenging employees

Last post I discussed another framework for evaluating your employees (or coworkers) and briefly summed up how to assign resources.  In short, employees in the red areas of the matrix should be starved for resources while those in the blue should have more resources made available to them.  The nature of the specific resources depends on where the person falls on the matrix but there are some guiding principles that are applicable and useful in day-to-day work.  The two primary resources are status and access.

A caveat that I would like to include is the assumption that removing the person from your organization is either not possible (for you) or, if possible, it won't be for some time.  If you can terminate then often that will be preferable, but that is not always an immediate option.

First I'll discuss status.  This resource is most important to limit to those who are oppositionally aligned with your organization.  That is, people who work in a manner that is not in line with your organizations values and long-term goals.  An example of this would be a bond trader employing a tactic that nets substantial profits now but leads to increased costs due to destroyed trust with key customers.  That specific example represents an Oppositional Acheiver, someone who gets substantial results but at a heavy price to your organization.  If you allow that person to gain status (in this case that could be through an award, commendation, large bonus or promotion) you will find that behavior being replicated throughout your organization because you've sent a signal that such is what you actually want, in spite of any lip service.  Ways to contain or reduce status include assigning less substantial projects, not including the individual in 'inner circle' meetings and highlighting negative side effects of projects that seem successful.  Another and key resource to deny such individuals is workers who are 'on the fence' or could be readily moved from a supportive or neutral alignment into an opposing one.  This will include any new employee.  Never let an oppositionally aligned employee train other employees, even if you think it's a garbage assignment.  Being in a position to train grants status.

The next resource to manage is access.  By access I mean anything that puts the individual in a position where others are relying on their work.  In other words, do not turn them into a bottleneck.  This can be extremely difficult to do given the interconnectedness of the modern work environment (and this is the group that I will have the hardest time putting to good use in my later post) but it can be done.  One of the biggest is to avoid putting them on teams or departments where employees are judged on group results.  These are people where it is absolutely essential to establish individual accountability in every facet of their work.  If the person is a Toxic Ally (wants to be helpful but somehow gets in everyone's way) they can often be set to work on things with which customers will interact (even a customer service role that is measured individually).  Poisoned Burdens, on the other hand, probably are best used to catch up filing or other menial tasks that, while need to be done and can be measured, don't have an immediate impact on others' getting their work done.

The ideas I've discussed here around status and access are intended to be a quick guide to managing employees that may not be readily put to good use.  These guidelines are quick and dirty and don't represent any development on the part of the manager.  The only reason I discussed these non-development principles is because it is generally necessary to stop the bleeding in a department to give the manager time to take a more deliberate approach.  In my next post I'll begin talk about the development stage, how to use these problems as opportunities.

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