Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Don't Alter Your Management for Poor Employees

Actions to take: Do not take on extra work (or make others take on extra work) to make up for poor performance. Talk with the problem employee using the usual means that this blog recommends (one-on-ones and routine feedback). Leave it in their court to do the fixing. Accept that things may get worse before they get better.

Way back in the day, libraries used card catalogs to keep track of where they kept the books. It was essentially like a giant recipe box with index cards. Each card had information about each book: title, author, Dewey Decimal number, etc. A cataloger might create thousands of these cards each year. I knew of one cataloger who got a chewing out because, one time, a day's batch of cards went missing in transit from their desk to its final destination. From then on, the cataloger made a duplicate card for every single book they cataloged, doubling their workload. The issue never came up again.

The moral to this story: "Don't create a new procedure based on a single, isolated event."

In the post about what counts as "not public" for feedback, we imagined an employee who was willing to eavesdrop on conversation clearly not meant for them. Let's work through a solution to that problem. The only way to be absolutely sure they are are not overhearing comments meant for others (for instance, feedback to their coworkers) is to stop giving feedback anywhere except your office with the door closed. We need to do everything we can to make feedback feel safe, after all. 

This is the easy answer. We control our actions. We know for sure this will solve the issue. It is also the wrong answer. It completely ignores the moral we just learned. 

When you change your managerial behaviors for one poor performer, you set a bad precedent. It is tantamount to saying, "You, employee, have the power in this relationship. You can force me to be less effective that I could otherwise be, do things I would rather not do." In the scenario we just described, we are making more work for ourselves and making it harder to give feedback, all because some employee is doing an inappropriate and uncourteous thing. 

We accommodate problematic behaviors in countless ways. You are undoubtedly doing at least a few things to work around problems with your employees. Do you have an employee who is a little bit of a bully with their opinions during meetings, and you side-step it rather than coaching them on it? Do you have an employee who always has excuses for missing deadlines, making others rush through other parts of the process? Do you have an employee who claims to be perfectly fine with every plan but quietly harbors resentment when things are done differently from how they would have? We have to get things done, so we do whatever is necessary to work around these little problems in the moment. The thing is, we are always busy. There is never a convenient time to address the root issue. 

We've got a spiral of cause and effect here. We do a little more work to get around these little problems, making us a little busier, making it a little harder to find time to fix the underlying problem. There seems to be no escape. This is the ultimate result of altering your managerial behaviors when you encounter poor performance from your employees. 

So what is the answer? Frankly, you are going to have to let things get a little worse before they get better. You need to stop fixing the problem for the employee. Only then will they feel real pressure to fix the problem themselves. Your job is to provide coaching and feedback and explicitly state expectations of the job. Their job is to do the work within the parameters of that guidance. When you find workarounds for problems, you are both failing to do your job properly. 

You've got an employee who is chronically late on deadlines? Stop rushing other parts of the work to make sure the whole thing gets in on time. Start letting the whole thing be a little late. When your boss asks, be honest about where the issue is (or preempt this by giving your boss the heads up before things start coming in late). You've got an employee who eavesdrops on private conversations? Have a very serious feedback conversation where you explain that it cannot happen again and change nothing about your own behavior. You must allow for the possibility that it might happen again in order for the employee to prove that they will not do it again.

Bonus piece of advice: if you have been accommodating poor performance, it may be wise to fess up to your part in all this. Consider telling the employee that you have realized you are enabling issues to continue and that you will not in the future. 

There is one more major downside that comes from accommodating problematic behaviors: you hide the extent of the problem from other parts of the organization, specifically HR and the management chain above you. They might blithely listen to you complain about a problem employee, but everything is going okay as far as they are concerned. From their perspective, you've got it under control. It must not be that big a deal. Congratulations, through your hard work, you have saddled yourself with poor performers that you will never be able to let go of.

Average bosses find themselves bending over backwards to fix dozens of little problems for their employees. They don't know how to properly help employees improve, so their only recourse is to change their own behavior. "Employee A can't [Blank], so I'll [Blank] instead. Employee B refuses to [Blank], so I have to do [Blank] workaround." So on and so forth. They end up becoming fantastically overworked micromanagers. Better bosses live up to the adage that two wrongs don't make a right. They understand that it is their job to help employees do well through coaching, feedback, and other communication, but it is emphatically not their job to cover for poor performance.

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