For a manager, employee problems generally come in two varieties: behavior problems and performance problems. Often they present themselves as a package deal. Knowing and recognizing the difference and being clear from the start which one you are addressing, is the key to any form of successful resolution. In this article, I will focus on workplace behavior problems, and the reasons a manager simply can not ignore them.
Let us start with the understanding that from the perspective of others, all of us possess some behavior traits or quirks if you will, that can irritate or be off-putting to others from time to time. As humans, personal perfection is not an option, so within reason we all must tolerate some things like them or not. But in the workplace, behavior traits or quirks that either (1) hinder a subordinate’s own performance, (2) harm the organization in some way, (3) hinder the performance of his or her colleagues, or (4) heaven forbid, all of the above, demand that something must be done. As a manager, it is your job to help your subordinates avoid, if possible, self-inflicted job tenure or career damage, serve your organization’s best interests, and, maintain a work environment where all your subordinates can perform at their best.
Still dealing with behavior problems at work can be difficult and often will involve confrontational conversations and emotional stress. The first key is to remember that you are representing your organization and your role as a manager — not your personal likes or dislikes — when you have to initiate a behavior problem conversation. Next, you should always seek to avoid accusatory language (e.g. “you obviously enjoy disrupting things around here”), labeling the behavior’s author in some way (e.g. as a cynic, non-team player, mal-content, pest,etc.), or trying to suggest you know why anybody does what they do. This approach almost always elicits an angry, non-productive response.
Your goal in confronting a behavior problem involving one of your subordinates is simple: get the subordinate to modify or stop the behavior. Understanding its cause may or may not help you get there but is secondary to your primary objective. You are dealing with behavior that negatively impacts performance and/or your organization and therefore it must be changed.
To accomplish your goal, there is a time-tested approach that long experience has taught me offers the best opportunity for positive results. It has various names but I have always preferred SITUATION, BEHAVIOR, CONSEQUENCE. This approach involves identifying the situation or situations where the behavior in question is displayed, describing the behavior itself without labels or accusations, and identifying the consequences that result.
The power of this approach is twofold. First, it allows you to be descriptive in terms of events and behavior that are observable, primarily fact based, and verifiable.; what you are describing either happened or did not; others have either seen and been effected by it or they have not. Second, it allows you to directly tie the consequence portion of this approach to the exact reason some behavior modification or change must occur. Specifically, the behavior is either putting the subordinate at risk of a negative evaluation, loss of job or career damage, is damaging to your organization in some demonstrable and describable way, is hindering the ability of others to perform, or a combination of these things.
I wish I could tell you that one such conversation with a subordinate usually does the trick. Unfortunately it often does not. So once you have started down this path you must be prepared to persevere. Otherwise you will not be taken seriously. The best managers understand that modification or stopping the behavior in question has to be non-negotiable and thus you must be prepared to follow-through on the consequence you spell out to the individual if non-compliance is the end result. It is the confidence a subordinate has that you will indeed follow through as you say, that usually is the strongest motivation for them to change.
It is also wise to remember that the rest of your subordinates are almost certainly aware of a behavior problem in their midst and thus are watching carefully to see if you are prepared to do your job and deal with it. Ignoring these problems risks undermining your authority and credibility in the eyes of those entrusted to your management and leadership skills.