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Need a better way to confront problem employees?

December 13, 2013

Nearly every employee will commit a blunder at some point, some serious, others less so. And more than a few will blunder on a regular basis. Knowing when and how to confront disappointing behavior or performance promptly and head-on outside the realm of your regular review process can save you and the employee a lot of grief, and enable most workers to get back on track.

Understanding how to have a productive confrontation begins with a quick self-assessment. Do you:

  • Shy away from the problem and hope it will solve itself, or, the other extreme,
  • Take employees to the proverbial “wood shed” and vent your frustration or anger, without thinking it through carefully in advance?

The former requires living in fantasy land and will get you nowhere. The latter will only make matters worse.

Motivating yourself to become skilled at productive confrontation begins by thinking through the nature and impact of the problem(s) you seek to address. Sometimes they run deeper than you might think.

For example, if an employee fails to give you a report you need in time to prepare you for meeting with a big customer or prospect, what is the impact? If it’s that you hold the meeting without the facts and analysis you need to make a successful presentation, and lose the customer or prospect. That’s a high price. But it’s not all that’s at stake.

Risk: Downward Spiral

What else is at stake? For example, what if the blown deadline undermines your confidence in an employee who till now, has done a good job? This could sour your relationship and fuel a downward spiral which ends in a termination or resignation. What if, as a result, other workers get the message that it’s no big deal to miss deadlines? Based on what happened to their coworker, they may decide there are no real consequences to missing a deadline and start to take their own deadlines less seriously. You get the picture. Never believe for a moment the rest of your staff is not watching to see what happens.

“Crucial confrontations comprise the very foundation of accountability” (as described in a book by the same title published by McGraw Hill) and start with the question, “why didn’t you do what you’re supposed to do.” These confrontations must be handled face-to-face, but do not require acrimony, just an honest, frank, respectful, and focused conversation.

Administer “CPR”

This type of confrontation requires first that you probe the nature of the problem you think you need to confront. This necessitates digging deeper than the incident itself. The authors of “Crucial Confrontations”1 recommend a three-pronged approach to “unbundling” the problem, which they call the CPR method — content, pattern and relationship. Here’s how it works:

  • Content: What was the actual incident? In the example above, it was missing a deadline to turn in a report. Assess the seriousness of the incident.
  • Pattern: Has this problem occurred before? If so, what did you do previously to address it? Presumably whatever you did wasn’t effective, so what new approaches can you take? 
  • Relationship: How has the incident (or pattern of similar incidents) affected your working relationship with the employee — or how might it if effective remedial steps are not taken?

After you have sorted this out and decided which CPR component is the most important, you need to decide whether a “crucial confrontation” is warranted. It might not be. For example, suppose in this incident, the blown deadline caused you problems. However, it was the first instance and you sense the employee is somewhat thin-skinned and you value the relationship. You might decide to let it pass. But if you simply are uncomfortable with confrontation, don’t rationalize your way out of holding an employee accountable when appropriate.

If you take a good hard look and decide a confrontation is necessary, don’t think about having it until you have the right frame of mind. “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret,” Ambrose Bierce once wrote. After you have cooled off, you can plan your confrontation. Following are some basic steps described in detail in the book:

Elements of a Successful Confrontation

Describe the gap: Employees will be more at ease if they sense you do respect them and care about their goals. With this perception, they are much more open to what you have to say. Rather than simply telling them what they did wrong, lay out what you had expected, what occurred instead, and the gap between the two. This somewhat detached approach de-personalizes the problem and helps keep the employee from falling into a defensive crouch.

  • Motivate corrective action: Employees need to want to perform better, if they are to avoid repeating the error being discussed at the confrontation. But motivating an employee does not require “clout, chutzpah or even charisma,” the authors contend. Rather, it involves helping the person to gain a more accurate understanding of the impact of messing up again — but not in an intimidating way.
  • Make the remedy easier: Like it or not, the authors contend, it’s up to you to remove as many barriers as possible for the employee to do the job correctly. Managers need to see themselves as “facilitators, enablers, and supporters, not armed guards or cheerleaders.”
  • Find a mutually agreeable plan, and monitor progress: Absolute clarity is essential regarding what happens next, in terms of who does what, and by when, to execute remedial action. Avoid ambiguous terms like “the team.” Instead, specific individuals must be given full responsibility for particular facets of a plan, even if it requires support from others. A plan must also be clear for how progress towards achievement of the plan will be accomplished.
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