Dealing with employees who don’t play well with others

Dear Joan,

I’d like to see an article on employees who do their jobs very well but can’t seem to maintain good working relationships with coworkers. These on again/off again swings sometimes wreak havoc in the department and have staff on edge. At other times, it’s just an underlying current of ill will. It’s hard to convince management that someone who is performing well must go! 

Answer:

A good performer shouldn’t leave blood on the floor. I don’t consider someone who is wreaking havoc in the department “performing well.” If all that matters is the bottom line, perhaps. But at some point the cost of those results begins to outweigh their ultimate value. 

Here are the signals that the costs are beginning to outweigh benefits: 

  • You are spending several hours each week coaching employees on how to tip toe around Tommy Temper, so he doesn’t have an outburst.
  • There is a growing line of employees outside your office door. They are upset about how they have been treated by Ms. Prissy and they want you to do something about it.
  • Outside customers love Miss Hissy-Fit (so you know she can turn on the charm when she wants to) but internal customers are bossed around, insulted and treated like her personal slaves.
  • Miss Hotshot thinks she is irreplaceable. She is overheard making comments such as, “I’m the top sales person around here. Without me, this place would collapse!”
  • Mr. Special goes around the rules and policies to get what he wants, which upsets the entire system and makes any standardized processes a joke.
  • You start resenting Mr. Big because he is undermining your authority and effectiveness as a manager. He knows when to pull the “results card” as soon as he’s confronted with his behavior.
  • And you know it’s really bad when good employees start to quit, or outside customers start to get wind of this problem. 

Your challenge is to recalibrate this person’s understanding of what is expected. The person needs to understand that great results don’t just mean bottom line results. It’s not just the what but the how that counts. And you will need to educate upper management, as well. 

Organizations have been instituting “performance competencies” for just this reason. Companies are defining expectations for “how” results are achieved. For example, a performance review rating would be made up of 60 percent bottom line results and 40 percent performance on competencies. Those competencies might include, Teamwork, Interpersonal Skills, Communication with Stakeholders and other skills and behaviors important to how results are achieved in that culture.  

Even if you don’t have formal competencies, you can still discuss this with the person. Start with, “Tom, you know I’m pleased with your bottom line results but I need to talk to you about your total performance. I know your performance is important to you, so I want to make you aware of some things that are preventing you from being really successful in your job. (Expect surprise and indignation.) 

Success around here is not only measured in bottom line results but what those results cost the company. When you upset your coworkers by saying things such as, (use specific examples) to your coworkers, it destroys their productivity and takes my time to do damage control. Frankly, it also makes them less willing to help you.” 

At this point, you will hear about how incompetent or thin-skinned the person’s coworkers are. You respond, “I don’t want to talk about them. Let’s stay focused on your responsibilities. Your coworkers are your internal customers and they are critical to this operation. Without their skills and cooperation, you can’t be successful here. We are all interdependent, so here’s what I want you to do differently…” 

Monitor the situation and revisit the subject immediately if the person violates the expectations you have discussed. At this point, restate how important it is and be clear and firm about what you want. Tell him or her you will be meeting weekly with them to see how they are doing. Come up with some specific, proactive behaviors you want to see. Tell the person you will judge their performance by positive comments (or lack of complaints). 

If you find that you are revisiting this again, it’s time for the consequences discussion. “I feel it’s only fair to tell you what the consequences could be if you don’t turn this around. Your bonus will be affected (or other appropriate negative action).” At this point, you will have his or her highly agitated attention. This may be the first time the person actually realizes you mean what you say.  

Expect an end run to your boss. Warn him or her in advance, so you will be supported when this happens. Only when the ranks circle around him or her, will behavior change be taken seriously. And yes, in the end, sometimes this person does need to get fired. When it happens, I usually see the entire team breathe a sigh of relief—and they discover that the place didn’t collapse without Mr. Big, after all.


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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