Dec. 29 2006 12:06 PM

The philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre once said, ¡°Hell is other people.¡± The number one problem managers and supervisors contend with is people. Ask any manager what keeps them up at night, gives them heartburn or stresses them out and the answer will undoubtedly be people. The bad news is this; you won¡¯t find the answers in your typical MBA course. However, there is good news and it reveals that there are actions you can take to help create relationships with your staff. Relationships, that once developed, can produce the desired results with integrity, respect and clarity.


Let¡¯s begin by examining what is typically meant when we make the assessment that an employee is difficult. The dictionary defines difficult as ¡°hard to deal with, manage or overcome.¡± This typically happens in five scenarios with employees: one, they¡¯re not performing the job according to expectations; two, they¡¯re not doing the job; three, they¡¯re not delivering the results on time; four, they¡¯re dishonest; and five, they simply have a bad attitude. We will look at each of these issues, but before we begin, let me digress and provide my management philosophy with a peek at the big picture.


I believe the relationship between managers and employees should be authentic and built on trust. The only way I know how to build, maintain and sustain a relationship is through communication. As in any relationship, care needs to be taken in communication. Generally, this means setting aside an uninterrupted block of time for having a conversation with an employee, in a respectful way, within the appropriate emotional context. The right conversation in the wrong mood is ineffective and can actually create more damage than good to the relationship.


Second, it is critical that a manager be competent in discovering facts from opinions. A fact is a statement that can be answered true or false. Saying ¡°it¡¯s 32.ª outside¡± is a fact. ¡°The time is 4:00 PM EST¡± is a fact. An opinion, on the other hand, is simply a judgment or assessment. Opinions can be valid or invalid but are never true or false. An opinion is a statement by the person speaking. Commenting that ¡°she is beautiful¡± is an opinion, and as the expression goes, ¡°beauty is in the eye of the beholder.¡± Each of the five areas of difficulty we have with employees is an opinion or judgment we make. These can be supported by facts, but what generally makes the situation difficult is that they are subject to interpretation. As a manager, one usually has the authority to assert one¡¯s opinion. However, I have found that it¡¯s generally more effective to communicate by gathering the facts that will provide a well-grounded opinion. As in a courtroom, the final judgment of guilt is based on evidence; the bottom line is that it¡¯s a judgment and not the ultimate truth. Managers need to make good judgments and the best way is to have the facts that support a conclusion with which an employee won¡¯t argue. Let¡¯s look at an example relating to one of the issues.


Bob was an employee that people liked. Customers never complained about him, and he completed all his work. The difficulty with Bob was that he came to the Monday morning 8:00 AM meetings late. Bob was five to 10 minutes late once or twice a month and it drove his boss nuts.


The conversation went something like this.


¡°Hi Bob, please come in, shut my door and have a seat.¡±

Bob nervously complied.

¡°Bob, I want to discuss a behavior of yours that has been disturbing me; may I be frank with you?¡± the boss asked.

¡°Sure.¡± Bob replied.

¡°Bob, in the last two months, you¡¯ve been late to four Monday morning meetings; were you aware of that?¡±

Bob shifted his weight in his seat and looked at the floor. ¡°Well, I know that I¡¯ve been late a few times.¡±

¡°As you know, I start my meetings at exactly 8:00 AM, and I expect everyone to be in their seats and ready by then. When you don¡¯t show up on time, I get irritated and think you¡¯re being disrespectful of me and your co-workers. What will it take for you to show up on time for meetings?¡±

Bob shifted in his seat again and replied, ¡°I never meant any disrespect; it¡¯s just sometimes I run into traffic problems on Monday mornings.¡±

¡°Bob, you¡¯ve never been more than 10 minutes late to a meeting; what do you think would happen if you left your home 15 minutes earlier?¡±

¡°I guess that would work.¡± Bob answered.

¡°It is important to me that you take this seriously. I value you as an employee and, except for this, you are doing a good job. I don¡¯t want this to get in the way. Can I count on you to show up on time?¡±

¡°Yes,¡± Bob promised.


In the two years since this conversation, Bob has never been late to a Monday morning meeting.


Now, let¡¯s deconstruct what happened and see the process we can utilize for dealing with some of the other issues with difficult employees.


First, the manager set aside an uninterrupted time to meet with the employee and have a conversation. Many times the manager does not take the time to have the conversation, or worse, just provides an offhand remark. Having a meeting creates the context that the subject is important and serious. Second, the manager asked for permission to have an open and frank conversation with the employee. This is a critical step in preparing the employee for the nature of the conversation. Third, the manager was prepared and had the dates and times of the incidents readily available. When you¡¯ve taken the time to gather facts, it takes away objections unless the data is just plain wrong, and if it is, then it is important to know that as well.


Fourth, the manager specified the expectations of the job or the standards by which the manager would be satisfied. Sometimes employees don¡¯t know what is expected of them. Fifth, the manager expressed his feelings. Emotional intelligence has been shown to be crucial to successful leadership. It is important for both the manager and the employee to express their emotions in a healthy format. Sixth, the manager did not accept the employee¡¯s excuse for not doing what was expected, and in this case, even suggested a solution. This is a judgment call; many times it is better to ask the employee to come up with the solution. Finally, the manager asked the employee to promise to change his behavior. This is one of the most critical steps. It is through these promises that we can produce results with respect and integrity. Now if the problem resurfaces in the future, the issue becomes a conversation about trust, integrity and ¡°keeping your word.¡± Without trust, the manager must decide whether or not it makes sense to keep the employee on staff.


This simple seven-step process can be utilized to address the other issues with difficult employees as well. When an employee is not performing his/her job, then the manager needs to determine if it¡¯s an issue of ¡°cannot,¡± ¡°will not,¡± or ¡°doesn¡¯t know how.¡±


If it is a ¡°cannot¡± issue, it means the employee does not have the talent to perform the job. In this instance, the choices are to either find another position for the person or let them go.


If it is a ¡°will not¡± issue, it is an attitude problem. These are difficult, and I could devote an entire article to this subject alone. Many times, having a conversation about the impact of the employee¡¯s attitude will shift the behavior. Other times, giving the employee some uninterrupted time to discuss their feelings will alleviate the problem. If it is not resolvable, especially in a dishonesty case, the best option is to terminate the relationship. Finally, if it is an issue of ¡°doesn¡¯t know how,¡± then the manager needs to provide training so that the employee can perform the job.


Your greatest employees will undoubtedly be the ones that at one time or another were your difficult employees. Having a conversation about issues and being authentic is the key to building good relationships. The joy of management is creating a work environment where people can excel beyond their expectations and every person can make a difference.


Mark A. Taylor is a professor, business coach and CEO of TAYLOR Systems Engineering Corporation. With 25 years experience in management, he speaks at many major industry events and is the author of ¡°Computerized Shipping Systems: Increasing Profit and Productivity Through Technology.¡± He can be contacted by phone at 734-420-7447 or