Twice in the past month two different clients have called with challenging employee scenarios. The managers were completely frustrated with these employees. They were “real trouble-makers.” They are also often real heroes because they are reacting, or overacting, for valued reasons. There is much literature on how to improve leadership effectiveness. In my experience, this literature most frequently focuses on the behaviors of leaders. They must be more like servants, coaches, facilitators, walk the talk, give constructive yet confrontational feedback etc. etc. This literature is very useful but it often misses an important aspect. It often misses the suggestion that leaders must focus on the system if they want improvement and behavior change.
My clients call me when they experience an especially difficult employee (situations). They call me when they are stuck. I encourage this for two reasons. First, it allows me to learn the biggest challenges my clients face and how my leadership model is able overcome these barriers. Secondly, it provides me an opportunity for coaching and reinforcement of the leadership tools I have already shared with the clients.
One of the managers who called was frustrated by a “difficult employee” who was consistently complaining about other employees. She would talk about them behind their backs and criticize the quality of their work. She would occasionally confront employees when she saw a mistake but the reaction she received was less than cooperative. Rarely did the other employees listen. They often flatly ignored her completely and this frustrated her even more. Complaints about her poured in and even the HR management was notified of this “trouble-maker.”
The manager had tried everything she could think of to turn this employee around. She just would not listen and would not change and she feared she would have to let her go. The frequency and intensity of her outbursts were both increasing and the complaints about her were as well. I asked the manager a series of questions. Would she be upset if she left? Do her comments and insights have merit? Are the others actually making these mistakes? Does she have integrity? What value does she currently bring to the department and function? Etc. The manager was clear. She told me she would be sorry to see her go because her insights about the quality of work were very often correct although her style was disrespectful. Her knowledge was extremely valuable in other areas of the department and other functions as well because she had been in the department for a number of years and had accumulated considerable and useful experience. The manager was hoping there was another way.
Through a series of questions the manager and I determined this employee had highs standards and was detail oriented. This told us that her frustration was due in large part to her desire to do a good job. She was not trying to be difficult. Instead, she was trying to be heard. She was trying to make things better. She wanted to raise the standards of her co-workers. We concluded the co-workers were unaware of their mistakes. They too were not lazy poor performers. Instead they were unaware and uninformed. The employee was able to see the errors frequently because her job required her to process the other employees’ work and deliver a summary to the external customer. As she compiled the final “hand off” to the external customer this employee was able to identify the errors and fix them. Her job put her in a position of inspector. She lacked the opportunity to share this data in a way the employees could accept it and put it into action. This is a system issue that needed to be corrected. Effective leaders look for these opportunities and take action to remove these types of barriers. This is the system change we were looking for.
The manager, employee, and I brainstormed a way to let the staff know we would collect data. The data was then presented to the staff, without names and without blame. The team brainstormed ideas about how to avoid the errors. They implemented the ideas and the errors were reduced. The frustration level of the employee fell. The complaints stopped. The employee transformed her behavior from a trouble maker to helpful team member and colleague. All this happened because we listened to her and looked for a system solution. The trouble mker employee had been transformed into a heroine because the system was improved.