— March 6, 2019
Don’t you get frustrated when you’ve told an employee a hundred times what you need them to do, or how they’re supposed to behave, yet it makes no difference? Or even worse, when the person tells you they understand, or says the magic words, “I’ll try to do better,” but nothing changes?
The reason nothing is changing could be because you’re not taking a decisive, accurately targeted approach. First, consider that there’s a significant difference between dealing with someone who is behaving badly or committing a violation, and someone who is not skillful enough, not meeting standards, or simply annoying to deal with.
When you work with an employee who behaves within the normal range but doesn’t achieve the desired results, you can study their mode of operation to determine if they can use their strengths to overcome their weaknesses, or if there’s a different role or position that will suit them better.
But that approach doesn’t work if you have to correct a pattern of offensive behavior. Asking problematic leaders or employees, kindly and repetitively, to find a better way, be more empathetic, care about their colleagues, or undertake any other form of “doing better” is not going to get their attention or motivate them sufficiently to ensure change.
Know When It’s Time to Play Hardball
So if you’re responsible for someone who has a pattern of behaving wrongly, or who speaks or treats people in ways that violate norms of appropriateness or fairness, stop asking them to do better. Either they don’t agree with you that their behavior is wrong, or they don’t want to change because their bad behavior works for them in some way.
Instead, be explicit about what the unacceptable actions are. Tell them which norms they violate, what costs those violations create, and what the consequences will be if they continue to persist in these clearly labeled negative ways. Here are two examples.
Example 1: If, contrary to corporate culture, a leader has a track record of making demands or issuing new directives to employees during their leisure time, you could say something like this:
“When you keep emailing and texting your team members at all hours, expecting them to answer your questions during the evening or on the weekend, you’re violating our commitment to employees having sufficient time for their home lives. That’s not how we want our managers/executives to behave.
“I’m happy to work with you to come up with alternative ways to get the kind of results you’re looking for, or find other ways to keep your staff on point, or even handle emergencies. But you must show more respect for the boundaries between work time and personal time if you want to be successful in this role. I’ll be assessing the situation over the next six weeks to see what’s happening, and then we’ll meet again to see if there’s been noticeable improvement.”
Example 2: If a leader expresses favoritism by giving plum assignments to friends, or extends personal courtesies to some employees but not to others, try saying something like this:
“When you keep inviting Amy and Bill out for drinks after work to discuss projects but never invite Carla or Doug, it creates the impression that Amy and Bill are your friends and get special treatment, and that you’re effectively ignoring Carla and Doug and standing in the way of their advancement.
“We don’t operate that way. We have a norm of offering attention and opportunity to all employees, not just the ones we personally prefer. Within the next few weeks, you need to be able to show that you’re treating everyone fairly, or else you may not be able to continue in a management capacity. If you need help thinking about how to approach your team members more equitably, let’s discuss it this week. We’ll meet again in a month to see if you’ve made any changes. Otherwise, we’ll have to make some adjustments.”
Make It Official
After the discussion with the problematic person, send an email confirming that you told them they need to stop doing X and instead do Y, and that you’ll be following up within a certain timeframe with the expectation of seeing Z results for them to continue in good standing.
And then follow up! If you’re going to maintain credibility with a behavior problem, keeping your word and imposing consequences are both crucial. Mark your calendar with the review date. In the weeks before, actively seek out evidence to substantiate whether the executive is behaving differently. And get yourself ready to escalate the situation if necessary, by working collaboratively with your HR department or counsel and your own boss, so they know you’ve moved from requests to requirements, and can help guide you about next steps if the leader fails to comply.
What’s Best for Everyone
Whether you’re coaching for better results or correcting negative behavior, you’re always looking for incremental steps that help raise everyone’s performance. But if there is a bad actor – someone who bullies, manipulates, lies, or purposefully weakens others – you need to impose clear consequences and enforce them in order to avoid serious and permanent damage to your operation.