Supervisory Leadership

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How do I deal with troublesome employees?

Lots of supervisors moan about their "troublesome employees." Usually that's because they try to fix the wrong thing, because they don't start early enough, and don't want to take the time needed.

You'll hear lots of owners say, for example, that someone who works for them "has a bad attitude." When they talk about dealing with troublesome employees, they want to fix that attitude. But that's not what supervision is about.

The only thing you can supervise, because it's the only thing you can see and measure is behavior. Behavior is what people say and what people do and nothing else.

So, if you have an employee with a bad attitude you have to ask: "What does sh/e do that makes me say they have a bad attitude?" Once you can answer that, you can move on to dealing with the behavior.

Next, a bit of analysis is in order. Is that behavior happening because the employee won't do the job? Or is it because s/he can't do the job?

You can figure that out by looking at the employee's total behavior. If s/he does the right thing on most tasks or in most situations, but not in this one, you've probably got an issue with understanding, training, or resources. Fix those and you fix your problem.

But if your troublesome employee creates problems with lots of tasks and circumstances, then you have a behavior problem. It's time for a supervisory interview.

Conduct what I call a "Notice of Intent to Play Hardball" interview with the employee. Tell them what they're doing wrong and why it matters. Do it in that order, behavior first and consequence second.

Then tell them that you're going to be paying attention to that behavior and documenting it. Tell them what the consequences will be of different behaviors.

Then do what you said. Monitor. Document. Deliver consequences.

One of two things will happen. The behavior will get better or it won't. If it does, you've turned around the problem. If it doesn't you're probably going to be moving toward firing.

One more thing. In small businesses especially, supervisors don't start dealing with troublesome employees by heading off the problem early enough.

You have to recruit well. Hiring the wrong person because "we're short-handed" almost always lands you in trouble later.

You have to take the time to orient and train. It's hard in a smaller business, but it's easier in the long run.

Then you have to supervise, even if it's what you don't like to do. You have to set clear and reasonable expectations. You have to monitor behavior and make small course corrections.

Those activities will eliminate the majority of "troublesome employee" problems.


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