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Beware Attempting to Fix a Difficult Employee

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New(er) managers often step all over this issue of fixing people. I know I did. Twice. Both situations ended in disasters. The lesson: it’s never your job to fix a difficult employee.

It turns out that regardless of your great intentions, powers of moral suasion, and investment in time, sweat, and tears, you cannot fix a person. The individual in question has to want to change. You can set the stage and provide the opportunities, but you have a lot less influence on this situation than you might think.

In my coaching work with first-time managers, I encounter the fixing people phenomenon fairly frequently. In most cases, the manager truly believes she is doing her job by providing long, drawn-out counseling sessions, appealing to the difficult individual’s greater sense of good, or, providing second chances 10 times over. In reality, the manager is missing the mark, damaging her reputation, and damaging team performance.

An Extreme Attempt to Fix a Difficult Employee

I run a case in my courses and workshops that showcase a manager’s over-the-top support over a period of a few years for an individual who was brilliant, but toxic to the environment. This very real case underscores the complexity and ultimately incorrect thinking on the part of the manager.

The manager counseled, coached, reviewed, provided feedback, engaged external coaching and training, and while the aberrant behaviors would cease for short periods of time, they inevitably resurfaced. The individual was moved to other groups, promoted, moved sideways, placed in the metaphorical penalty box in a solo role, and at every step, he found a way to alienate stakeholders.

The manager rationalized his support for the employee in a variety of ways, often defending the individual’s brilliance and vouching for the perception that the difficult person had good character. (This difficult employee was brilliant at translating customer issues into hit products. He had a track record of success and the manager was fearful of losing this individual’s talent to competitors who regularly courted him.)

For a period, the team members complied and outwardly excused the employee’s behavior. Eventually, however, they decided they had had enough, and after a particularly toxic encounter precipitated by a critical product design decision, the team ostracized the individual. Being visibly shunned frustrated him and he resolved the situation by storming out never to return.

In case you have not guessed, I was the hapless manager in this case.

That never feels great to admit. In classes where I run this case, I disguise my role until the absolute last minute of class. The students appropriately skewer the manager’s mishandling, and they gasp when they learn it was their instructor. (OK, their reaction always offers me a bit of an adrenaline surge.)

In general, I have no qualms showcasing my many mistakes over my career as learning examples. This one happened early in my life as a manager, and the lessons helped me move on to bigger mistakes and successes.

As you might imagine, I’ve been on the receiving end of many lists of steps I should have taken.

What the Manager Should Have Done

The case is a bit more complicated than I’ve outlined above. However, my mistakes are obvious. While I took many of the steps below, I unnecessarily placed the burden of driving change on myself. I became accountable for and enabled his behaviors. I also failed to operate with a time horizon for resolution in mind.

Instead, I should have:

  • Used the tools of feedback, feed-forward to clarify the behaviors and their adverse impact on the team and our working environment.
  • Put some teeth into the need for the individual to change, instead of rationalizing and ultimately enabling his behavior.
  • Quickly moved to external coaching for this high-potential/high-difficulty employee.
  • Avoided excessive experimentation with different positions. Ultimately, this obfuscated the behavioral issues and created collateral damage.
  • Used time as a tool for behavior adjustment, with implications for the failure to change.
  • Developed the courage to resolve this by letting the individual go. His contributions were valuable but worth less than the value of the combined group that he was adversely affecting.

The Bottom Line

I truly wanted this individual to change and succeed, and so should you when you face your brilliant-difficult employee situation. However, don’t make yourself responsible for the individual’s behaviors and don’t assume you can ultimately control what the employee decides to do.

You are not in the business of fixing people. You are accountable for driving results.

Skip the excessive head-shrinking, provide the tools, support, feedback, and coaching. Operate with a visible timeline and place the accountability squarely on the shoulders of the individual. If the individual eliminates the destructive behaviors, everyone wins. If he doesn’t change and you eliminate him, everyone wins. The only mistake is to believe you are the one who owns the change.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.

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