It’s a simple but painful problem that has plagued business people since the beginning of time, I’m sure. From shopkeepers in ancient Rome to English factory supervisors during the Industrial Revolution to software engineering managers in modern Silicon Valley, leaders have always struggled with the question of what to do about a difficult employee. And the dilemma is almost always seen the same way: should I continue to tolerate this person or let them go?
The first step toward solving this simple and painful problem is coming to the realization that it is a false dilemma. The decision should not boil down to keeping or firing a difficult employee. In fact, the manager should avoid engaging in this line of thinking in the first place. The real question a manager needs to ask is "have I done everything I can to help the difficult employee?" Based on my work with manager at all levels, the answer to that question is usually a resounding 'no.' Here’s what I mean.
Most managers—including me during much of my career—react the same way when they come to the realization that one of their people is a problem. First, they find someone to vent to about it. Usually to a colleague, sometimes to a subordinate, and almost always their spouse. On a courageous day, they might make a subtle comment to the difficult employee, or if they’re timing is lucky, be able to include something in an upcoming employee review. What they rarely do is sit down with that employee and tell them, in no uncertain terms, that their attitude needs to change.
As ridiculously obvious as that sounds, and as much sense as it makes to anyone who has ever coached little league or parented a child, it rarely happens. Whether it is a CEO dealing with an arrogant or condescending VP of sales, a pastor managing a rude church receptionist, or a school principal hearing complaints about a caustic teacher, very few leaders have the guts to directly and unequivocally let a difficult employee know that their behavior is patently unacceptable.
This is understandable given that in many of these situations the employee in question is somewhat of a peer to the leader. No one relishes the idea of having to give a colleague bad news, especially when that news has to do with their personality or behavior. And so it is not surprising that leaders often hesitate, procrastinate, even abdicate their responsibilities, hoping that the situation will somehow change on its own.
But it rarely does, and the complaints continue, and that’s when the false dilemma starts to emerge and leaders feel like they have to make a "buy or sell" decision. If they fire the employee, the consequences aren’t pretty—there is the potential for a lawsuit or expensive severance, not to mention the possibility of a morale problem among the people who liked the employee or never saw the problematic behavior. And then there is the loss of that person’s production and the need to hire a replacement. On the other hand, if the leader decides to keep the difficult employee, there is the inevitable morale problem among the people who experience the poor behavior, and the loss of credibility that the leader will experience for not having the courage to make a hard decision.
And so the manager engages in a stressful and fruitless calculus exercise, constantly trying to estimate and mitigate the damage that either decision will create, all the while watching the stakes grow and grow with every passing day. What that manager needs to do is as fool proof as it is difficult: inform the difficult employee that he is being, well, difficult, and continue to remind him again and again and again until one of three good things happens.
In the best possible scenario, the employee gets so tired of the manager reminding him how difficult he is that he changes his behavior. This is certainly what any manager would prefer, but it cannot happen without honest and incessant communication. In the next best scenario, the employee gets so tired of the manager reminding him how difficult he is that he decides to leave the organization. This allows him to take action on his own terms, and it avoids the stress of lawsuits and the cost of severance.
Even the third and worst case scenario is preferable to the false dilemma that managers put themselves in. If the difficult employee decides he will neither change his behavior nor leave the organization, then the manager needs to let him go. Though it may still be somewhat painful, the manager will be able to act with relatively little guilt, knowing that he did everything possible to achieve a better outcome. That will go a long way toward helping employees feel good about the situation, and reduce the possibility of lawsuits that come about when a difficult employee is surprised.
But perhaps the greatest outcome of choosing the direct approach will be the message it sends to the rest of the organization: we have standards of behavior, those standards have consequences, and your leader has the courage to enforce those consequences. That is something that any leader, in any organization, in any era, should be able to appreciate.
You probably come across many people who think they have the skills to be leaders, but find very few who actually do. Leadership can be coached and it can be learned, but too many of us disregard it as a triviality and hold on to the ego-supported notion that we are born with leadership qualities. Thus, this crucial development stage is often skipped.
Many people also have the TV-inspired view that all leaders are like heroes who are there to save the day; they ignore the fact that leaders are mere mortals who are prone to the same mistakes that befall us all.
But there is something truly different about leaders: They bounce back. After failure, true leaders still have the poise and presence to convince us to follow them to the edge once again.
The big question is: What are the traits that set these people apart and how does one go about developing those same qualities?
A leader is more than an individual; he is the head of the pack. He is the one who always seems to know what to do and the one people seek out for advice.
He not only has a vision, but he also knows how to communicate it. A good leader must be able to convey his message both forcefully and convincingly, and so a certain mastery of oral communication is necessary. The result is that people are often bowled over by the clarity of his vision and the strength of his conviction, and they quickly fall in line.
While people are often overawed by leaders’ abilities, the real source of inspiration comes from two practices that most anyone can do: planning and goal setting. A leader is someone who determines which goals are important and develops a plan to meet them. He is the one who seemingly has solutions for every problem because he thought everything through before you even had a chance to begin.
True leaders believe in themselves. They feel that they have a high capacity to rise above the norm and make things happen.
Usually, this confidence stems from the fact that they are highly skilled individuals and have a broad knowledge of what it takes to get the job done. On the other hand, some successful leaders aren’t very skilled themselves, but they are able to identify those who are.
A strong leader must show consistency in his stance on issues and should not be easily swayed by others’ opinions. However, this is not to be mistaken for stubbornness, which can be a fatal flaw. Rather, a leader should be able to make rational decisions that are devoid of bias.
If you want to be the head honcho, you’ll also need to develop these characteristics…
Willingness to take risks
Many people refuse to take risks because they are afraid of failing. But if you are an aspiring leader, you have to ask yourself this: Is the risk worth taking?
A true leader must be willing to lead by example if he has determined that the benefits outweigh the potential dangers. But even so, many of us are not daring enough to take the plunge, and the people who take the most risks are often those who already have a good safety net in place.
If you have analyzed the risk and decided it is worth taking, you need to overcome this mental barrier in your mind. If you find it difficult to do so, keep on planning; the more prepared you are, the less risky a situation will be.
Leaders don’t give up without a fight. Things do not always come easily, and leaders must set an example by trying and trying again until they succeed. That said, leaders are also quick to see when they are fighting a losing battle and to resort to Plan B when that point is reached.
As a leader, you are expected to make hard decisions when others shy away from them. Whether that means letting someone go or making dramatic changes that affect your company, you are the one who must push it through.
A leader who is too soft often fails to get things done and has a tendency to be taken advantage of. Be merciless when the business requires you to be and stick to your decisions.
Leaders are generally familiar with all the aspects of their business and have a good understanding of how things work. They are aware of what goes on from the front lines to the top level. This wide perspective, combined with a meticulous attention to detail, allows them to recognize oddities where others cannot.
Willingness to sacrifice
Are you willing to do what it takes to get the job done? Being a good leader can be a demanding proposition because it requires a lot of face time and people management. This can eat into your personal life; you have to decide whether you are willing to make that sacrifice.
The business strategies that work well today might not tomorrow, and a leader must be quick to recognize this. Just as the company must adapt, so must the leader; he has to constantly learn new skills and find new approaches along the way.
A leader must not lose sight of his purpose or the purpose of those under his charge; if he does, he risks becoming out-of-date and bringing others down with him. Thus, it is important for a leader to demonstrate the foresight to bring about change and steer others toward it.
For aspiring leaders, the message is clear: Study the market and be critical of how you need to adjust.
Great leaders and great sales people share a common secret: the have two ears and one mouth and they use them in that proportion. They listen twice as much as they talk. Let people listen to there favorite voice, there own, and they will think you are wonderful.
As I have learned over my time, you will never get in trouble for listening.
When you are selling a car, phone or an idea and concept, you follow the same system. Below is a classic seven step sales cycle.
Check reactions at each stage.
The most important step is the first: agree the problem/opportunity from the other person’s perspective.
The process is conversational in which you let the other person communicate about what they are wanting to get out of this conversation.
The idea or concept you are trying to sell will probably make sense to you and you are probably very enthused about your proposition, but not everyone will get excited about your idea. You need to get into their shoes and their head and see the world through their eyes.
Tap into the personas dreams and core values. Try and avoid selling features, work out what the benefits are or ideally their dreams. Start with what the person wants, not what you have.