Coaching Difficult Employees: There’s Something About Mary

Here’s the Situation

Every supervisor or manager has to deal with difficult employees at some point. This employee -let’s call her Mary- consistently has a chip on her shoulder and her moodiness is a pain. The weather is more predictable. You go to work, the world looks pretty good to you, and the door opens and trouble has arrived. Mary whizzes by you without so much as a look you’re thinking I need to address this. Frequently her co-workers complain about her moodiness and her brisk and blunt comments to them. Mary demonstrates how angry she is by slamming doors and huffing and puffing. This isn’t a new issue; this has been going on awhile. It’s not every day but it happens way too often.

Praying About it Doesn’t Help

You’ve prayed difficult employees would just change overnight. You’ve approached the mine field around Mary’s work space with armor. Mary tells you “I don’t bother anyone and I don’t want anyone to bother me. I am here to do my job and that’s what I do!”

You’ve brought the stressful, disruptive, unkind and sometimes rude behavior up in reviews with her but nothing changes.  Mary might never change but you must! So let’s get busy on this!

The Solution to Difficult Employees

Get real, get honest! As her manager, what do you WANT to happen? Here’s what others with an employee like Mary tell me. “I want the behavior to stop.” Well, actually, they’ve also said things like “I would like to smack her.” “I would like to fire her.” “I wish she’d leave!”

What you want to have happen needs to be in alignment with the company’s policies and expectations. It needs to align with your responsibilities as a manager and your personal value system. You decide what you want. If you decide you want to address the behavior and create a mutual understanding of what needs to happen going forward I can help you.

Here’s Your Mission if You Choose to Accept

Make a list of specific examples of recent behavior that you want to stop. Do not exaggerate. Be factual. Be descriptive. Do not be dramatic. Act like a reporter describing what you saw, heard and what others have reported. Do not be prepared to go back over months or years or even throw the book at her but you must be able to describe in detail the behavior you saw, heard or was reported to you.

Schedule a coaching session; you can do this via email, phone or in-person. Here’s a suggestion on what to say. “Please make plans to meet with me for 10-15 minutes Wednesday morning at 8:15.” If Mary asks what’s it about, tell her you have some things to go over with her. That’s all you tell her. Addressing is the beginning. It is not the end.

Meeting With Mary

Let’s start with some best practices for all coaching sessions: be calm, sit on the same side of the desk or sit around a table, have water for you and her, have a clock where you both can see it, have paper and pen for each of you. Do not answer your phone or email and put a do not disturb sign on the door.

Mary, I wanted to meet with you to determine something. I would like to know how well thought of you want to be as an employee of the company and as a member of my team. On a scale of 1-5 what would be the number that fits best – using a gauge of one meaning it doesn’t matter and five meaning you want to be held in high regard, what number – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 would be the number you want?

Expect possible derailments of questions from Mary including what’s this about, what do you mean, etc. Just stick to the script. You need her to answer the question. Don’t defend, over explain or get into any behavior issues at this point. Stay focused on this first question.

With reluctance Mary says I would be fine with a 4.5. You explain that 4.5 is a number you can support. Ask her to make a list of the behaviors and skills she believes are crucial to the success of someone in her position. Be prepared to help Mary with the list but do not give her the list. You can leave the room while she works on this. Tell her you need to go to something and you will be back in 5 minutes or less and for her to just quickly make a stab at the list. Give her a prepared sheet of paper with a line down the middle with one side labeled Behaviors and the other Skills.

Getting the Picture

There isn’t a quick fix for dealing with difficult employees but there is a solution. The key is for Mary to begin to see what is required of someone who is well thought of -both by others and herself. We asked Mary to write down the behaviors and skills she thinks that are required in order to be very well thought of on the job.

On her list for behaviors she wrote:  Friendly, team player, dependable and professional.  Under skills she has: Know the job, accuracy, computer-related skills, and problem-solving.

You look over the list and tell her you think this is a great start.  Ask her to share her thinking about both lists.  Your job is to listen, to encourage her to speak about both lists.  Don’t ask her to defend what she came up with.  Ask her to share how she came up with it.  Inquire if there is anything more she wants to share about either list.

You are thinking she’s missing some behaviors and skills you expected.  And, you have witnessed first-hand that she is definitely falling short on excelling at several on her list but you don’t share your thinking.

“Mary, you and I are going to routinely meet.  And, we are going to meet to explore what you want, looking into what you need to do to get what you want, together we are going to build a plan to ensure you get what you want and we’ll decide some ways to measure how close you are to getting what you want.  How does this sound to you?”

She is skeptical but agreeable. Have her sign and date the list, make a copy for yourself, she keeps the original. Give her the next assignment.

“Mary, look over the list each day for a few days, as you do ask yourself if there is anything you want to add.    Then before we meet a week from today I want you to rate yourself using the 1-5 scale on each behavior and skill.  Remember 1 would mean the lowest score you could give yourself, 5 would mean the highest score you could give yourself.  Bring this to our meeting next week so we can talk more about this.”

Stay tuned for Monday’s blog where we explore what else could have happened in this coaching session. Like, what to do if Mary simply won’t make a list or crosses her arms and folds them tight and scows at you in a very uncooperative manner refusing to participate.

Still learning,