Houston, We Have a [Team Member] Problem

It’s often said that dealing with “people problems” can be one of the most challenging aspects to being a boss. Interacting with the complex system of thoughts, feelings energy and emotions that we human types are made of can bring with it unwelcome unpredictability to our daily work routine and leave us wishing we had a clearer road map for how to proceed. Fortunately, there is an approach that can help. Here are 4 steps you can take as a boss to engage in a positive way when a team member’s performance or attitude is not where it needs to be (plus a bonus step to help prevent such occurrences).

IMPORTANT: If your organization has guidelines covering employee performance and feedback, be sure you understand them well and thoroughly adhere to them. Check with your own manager and keep her/him in the loop.

STEP 1 — DIAGNOSE

As manager, your fist job once you’ve become aware of an issue is to determine exactly what’s going on. Here are some tips:

Focus on the behavior, not the person. It can be easy to focus on the individual rather than that person’s behavior, but it will be easier to resolve if you avoid making anything personal. The issue is the behavior, not the “person.”

There are a variety of reasons for poor performance or attitude issues, and by taking the time to uncover the source, you may actually end up solving other issues at the same time as well as avoiding future ones (or both).

Widen your view further by looking beyond the individual for contributing factors. These can include personal life challenges, issues with other team members, or their job may have changed in a way they don’t like.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you objectively demonstrate the negative behavior and its impact?
  • Do you have a sense (or direct evidence) that the negative behavior is affecting more than one other person; i.e., that this isn’t a personality issue between 2 team members (although that in itself of course needs resolution)?

STEP 2 — DIALOG

Once you’ve done your homework and gathered information , it’s time to sit down with your team member. Do this in person if at all possible; if not, then via video conference.

Start right away by letting the person know directly that you want to share some concerns and that your intention is to work together to overcome them. If you can, share something you appreciate about them as a team member and — if it feels true — that you value having them on the team and that’s why you want to work with them to resolve the challenges at hand. This helps them relax a little during what will clearly be a stressful conversation and allow it to be less confrontational and more collaborative. THINK COLLABORATION, NOT CONFRONTATION

Explain clearly and non-emotionally what the issue(s) is/are. Provide specific examples.

Explain the impact on the organization of the behavior. Put your authority behind that impact, so that it’s not simply a case of you responding to another individual employee being upset. You need to make it clear that the impact of the behavior is indeed an issue organizationally.

Ask your team member for their thoughts on the situation

Check for understanding. This includes:

  • Do they get what you are talking about?
  • Is there an element of the situation that you (the boss) may be missing?
  • Can they see how the behavior could create the impact you describe?

Ask what they think a solution looks like. Share your thoughts on what a successful resolution means from your point of view. Paint as clear a picture as you can on what success looks like, so it’s easier for your team member to attain it.

Check again for understanding Then agree on a course of action — including specific steps — and set a date by which you’ll have another check-in to see how things are going.

STEP 3 — MONITOR

Once you’ve met with your team member, it’s vital that you pay attention and be actively watching for improvement.

Jot down specific instances where you see the team member demonstrating the improved behavior (as well as other examples of good performance), so you can give them relatively informal positive feedback in the moment (e.g., “Great job on getting back to me quickly on this.”). This sends the message that you’re paying attention and that you recognize and welcome the improvement and/or general good performance.

Share these examples during the follow-up 1:1 that you have already scheduled. (It is already scheduled, right?)

STEP 4 — FOLLOW UP

Do your homework prior to the follow up so you have a degree of confidence as to whether the team member has in fact demonstrated improvement, and specifically how (see Step #3).

During this meeting, ask the employee how they think things are going in regards to the issue(s) in question.

Share your thoughts as well as the examples you collected in Step 3.

Depending on the degree to which your team member has improved (or not), this may be the end of it. If the behavior has improved, but not enough, share your thoughts about it, including that you both see improvement and clarify again what behaviors and outcomes you need to see.

Check again for understanding and set a follow up date that ideally is less far out in the future than this first follow-up was. That implies that the situation is serious and needs to be improved. (Since the situation is escalating at this point, be sure you have checked with your HR team for guidance and/or are following company guidelines.)

[BONUS STEP] PREVENTION:

Wouldn’t it be nice to not have this situation occur at all? You can’t guarantee that you won’t have challenging employee situations from time to time, but there are things you can do to help insure you have a motivated team that is humming along on all cylinders.

Have a compelling vision and mission for the organization that you share with everyone. If you are a team lead, consider creating a mission statement for the team that aligns with that of the organization. Make it a collaborative effort so the team feels it has had input in creating the team-level version.

Make sure everyone can see how their individual role contributes in a real way to the mission

Make sure you have clear role descriptions, including what is expected and what “success” in the role looks like. Be sure that these “success sign posts” are objectively measurable.

Be sure that every team member can see and articulate how their job is helpful to others, whether the “others” are customers, colleagues, or someone else. (See my article “3 Common Reasons Good Employees Leave, ” which is a deeper dive into this subject. https://www.alanrobycoaching.com/blog/3-common-reasons-that-good-employees-leave)

Hold regular 1:1’s with your direct reports, so that you establish a pattern of regular interaction. This helps your team members feel seen and understood (and hopefully appreciated by you). It’s also an “early warning system” that can help you recognize potential issues early. (If you think you don’t have time for meeting with your direct reports individually on a regular basis, think about how much time it’s going to take to have to let someone go and then hire their replacement.)

Working through challenging situations with your team members can actually be a rewarding part of being a boss. It takes commitment from you to be consistent and when possible, collaborative. See all of your people as the individuals they are, and it will make guiding them through rough patches go a little more smoothly.

Alan Roby is a Leadership Coach who’s passionate about using a people-first, personal approach to leading others. Find him online at alanrobycoaching.com