Team Building in the Real World: Rescuing the Problem Employee
Not every team member is ideal. For instance, an employee’s technical performance may be acceptable, but he causes other problems. Occasionally you have to deal with someone who is so imperfect that he becomes a continuing problem. Sometimes these employees can be salvaged; sometimes they have to be let go. But ultimately a manager has got to do something.
In theory, software development is the province of a coordinated team focused on a single goal and working harmoniously toward that end.
In practice, not so much. And sometimes not at all.
A problem employee can be like sand in the gears of an otherwise (you hope) finely-tuned mechanism. Some the sand grains are small and the result is a series of minor stresses. Sometimes the particles are larger and the effect is more pronounced. Sometimes they’re rocks – and the mechanism grinds to a halt.
While the vast majority of software development teams manage to bump along to get the job done, there are always exceptions.
The problem isn’t always the quality of the work. Sometimes the problem child does an acceptable, or even outstanding, job. The problem is other things.
The solitary, socially inept computer geek is a stereotype, but it is a stereotype for a reason. Most developers aren’t like that, but the meme has enough truth to keep it circulating.
Sometimes the person honestly doesn’t realize the effect she is having on other people, no matter how glaringly obvious it is to those around them.
“Many of the most talented developers are also people who may be interpersonally difficult,” says Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli, a Houston-based workplace psychologist with experience in counseling difficult employees. A lot of people have gotten by on talent alone, overriding the social and other aspects of their personality until finally they’re in a situation where their other deficiencies can’t be ignored.
The conventional solution is to replace the employee. If the person’s performance is sub-par, get rid of the person. The problem with the conventional solution is that modern software development teams tend to be both small and highly organized, working against tight deadlines. Replacing someone causes disruption as the replacement climbs the learning curve, and the scree from the inevitable stumbles along that ascent have to be integrated into the team effort.
On the other hand, ignoring a problem employee produces a rot that can spread through an entire organization.
Another important factor is the workplace itself. “If the workplace tolerates bad behavior, for instance, then you can have bad outcomes for the whole company,” says Dr. Scarborough Civitelli. “Other good people will eventually decide it’s not worth it.”
Fortunately, in many cases you can do useful things short of getting rid of your problem child. With some managerial effort, and participation from your team, often you can turn around a problem employee and produce an acceptable level of behavior in all areas.
Do keep in mind that as the manager, you’re the one who’s going to have to do it. When it becomes obvious that a situation won’t resolve itself, you have to initiate the change. And the sooner the better for everyone.
Dr. Scarborough Civitelli suggests a phased approach in dealing with difficult employees, involving a clearly outlined series of steps.
The first step is counseling, which may be either informal (by a co-worker or manager) or formal (with a professional). Often, Dr. Scarborough-Civitelli says, simply talking to the employee is enough to turn the employee around. “Sometimes a developer doesn’t even realize that his style is causing problems for the team. All that needs to happen is someone has to be courageous enough to be candid,” she says.
The person may be unaware of a problem, as well as clueless about how to fix it. This can be especially true of matters such as personal hygiene that other team members normally won’t mention.
However if a talk doesn’t do it, the next step is more proactive coaching – if the employee is amenable to it. Often the first reaction from the person is denial, either that the problem exists at all or that it is a problem. If that’s also the second reaction, the person may not be salvageable. However, often the person is aware in some sense that there is a problem and is willing to work on it.
It’s also important to be specific about behaviors and expectations. Explain exactly which behavior is wanted and what it unacceptable.
The next step is to make clear to the person what the fixing-things process will be. “Lay out game plans,” advises Mike Barefoot, a senior account executive at Redzone Resources, a Gerner, NC employment firm. “You’ve got to put a game plan in place. You’ve got to put things in bold print as to what you expect to see.”
What happens after that depends in large part on the employee and how motivated he is to change. At this stage, view this as a coaching situation, not a disciplinary matter. You are focused on getting the employee back on track. In most cases, addressing these employee imperfections is a process, not something that happens immediately.
In spite of the coaching approach, you still need to carefully document the interactions with the employee. If your “salvage” efforts fail, you need to demonstrate what you did and didn’t do.
“People change by practicing new behaviors,” Dr. Scarborough-Civitelli says, “by getting feedback and learning by fine tuning. You have to look for the opportunity to give people real-time feedback.”
“Someone has to learn new skills by doing,” she says. “People will still make mistakes, but as long as the trend is in the right direction and the person is generally motivated to improve, then I’m optimistic.”
One thing an employer can do to encourage this attitude is to offer resources to help the person make the changes. There are courses and coaching programs to help an employee learn how to get to the same high level in their personal characteristics as they display in their technical characteristics, she advises.
“People who are motivated to change, can change,” Dr. Scarborough-Civitelli says. “It happens all the time.”
But, Dr. Scarborough-Civitelli points out, change takes time. Even with the best motivation it takes a while for new behaviors to replace ingrown attitudes. “In my work, I have personally observed some of the most challenging people evolve to be much more facilitative and cooperative,” she says. “People can change for the better if they are motivated to do so, if they know what is expected of them, and if they are educated about how to make the changes.”
However, it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the person can’t or won’t change, or change enough, to make it work. Then the ball is in the manager’s court again. Ultimately the manager is the one to make the decision to keep the employee or decide if it’s time to part.