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Dealing with Difficult Behaviour

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


Let’s get one thing straight: as soon as you start to think of a colleague, a team member, a boss or one of your direct reports as a ‘difficult person’ you are lost. There will only be two options: you or they will have to go.

Luckily, there are truly very few difficult people. But that does not mean that you will not have to deal with your fair share of difficult behaviours. It may be the dark side of management, but as night follows day, it will always be there; part of your portfolio of responsibilities.

Exercise 1: Difficult Behaviours

Make a list of some of the types of difficult behaviours you have had to deal with. For each one, ask yourself: ‘what might be at the root of this behaviour?’

This question is crucial, because nice, easy-to-get-on-with people sometimes behave in difficult ways and there is always a reason. And when you have a good idea what the reason is, you will soon have some ideas about how to tackle it.

Three Tips

Here is a way to help you. Ask yourself, truthfully, whether you have ever behaved a bit like that. You probably have at some time; even if it was in your childhood or teenage years. What triggered that behaviour in you.

Another way to think about what is going on is to try and think of a time when someone you know well behaved like this. It was not their usual behaviour, so what was the cause.

My final tip is to imagine a child behaving like that in the playground. What might be going on?

Here are some behaviours to practise on…

Difficult Behaviours

Dealing with the Behaviour

Since it is the behaviour that you want to deal with, be sure to start from a position of respect for the person. Address simple, one-off behaviours as soon as you can and start from the supposition that the person may not be fully aware of their behaviour or the effects it is having. So non-judgemental observation can often be enough to raise awareness and trigger a change.

For longer embedded behaviours, you would do well to prepare in advance. Start with an assessment of what you want from the process – a minimum standard of behaviour, for example – and plan out how you will handle the situation. If you do not have good, strong, objective evidence of the behaviour and its impacts, gather it now.

It is often best to arrange a meeting on neutral ground, like a meeting room. Certainly it must be somewhere that offers privacy. Start your meeting by establishing rapport and letting the person know that you value them. Your temptation will then be to deploy the first killer word…

But

As soon as the word ‘but’ appears, the other person will forget all that has gone before and think ‘okay, here it comes, this is what it is all about.’

This is what it is all about, but you do not want to lose the value of what has gone before. Find a way of bringing up the topic without a but or an implied but. My own favourite is something like this: ‘there is something we do need to discuss.’ ‘Discuss’ makes it a joint endeavour, ‘something’ sets it in the context of a larger ‘everything, and ‘do’ whilst emphasising the point also hints that it is hard for you – which it is.

Head on

Be clear and direct (but not blunt) in your description of the behaviour and the impact it is having, then check whether the other person recognises the situation. This non-judgemental approach takes a lot of the personalisation away.

If they largely accept your observations, they will probably be willing or even keen to deal with the behaviour. Invite them to offer reasons and to work with you to address it. In doing so, you must address the second killer word…

Why

Reasons are important. Unfortunately the most convenient word we have to probe them is ‘why’. And no word gets more personal than ‘why’, so you are likely to get a defensive response. Instead, try better questions like: ‘can you tell me what might be causing this behaviour’ – placing the cause outside of the person.

Sometimes someone will not accept your observations about their behaviour, and maybe even reject the need to address it. This is not acceptable. You need to be firm, clear and respectful in telling them what needs to change and why. Without making threats, set out the consequences for your organisation, for yourself, and for them if if the don’t make the changes.

Do not threaten and do not negotiate beyond the outcome you planned on – instead, suggest you get back together in 24 to 48 hours, when they have had a chance to think through what you have discussed. This puts you in charge, and throws the responsibility for the next move onto them.

The Secret

Handling difficult behaviour is uncomfortable. The secret is to plan, to stay calm, and to maintain equal respect for yourself and the other person. You won’t always be able to change the behaviour and may need to escalate the process (see Let’s sort out poor performance, Part 3: The Alternative). But on most occasions, a light but controlled approach will work wonders.

Further Reading 

The Problem Behaviour Pocketbook

Tackling Difficult Conversations Pocketbook

…and, if all else fails:
The Discipline & Grievance Pocketbook

You may also like the following Pocketblogs:

How to Manage a Challenging Conversation
An earlier part of this series, it offers you a seven step process to help you prepare for your meeting.

How to Understand your Toddler
Actually, not just toddlers… Icek Ajzen’s theory of planned behaviour will help you understand behaviour and therefore some of the levers to change it.

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right
Mediation may be an option to help gain a resolution, and this blog describes how it works.

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Let’s sort out poor performance, Part 3: The Alternative

In the last two weeks, we have been looking at managing poor performance:

  1. The infrastructure you will need
  2. The techniques to turn poor performance around

This week, we are going to look at what to do if you cannot turn the poor performance around.

Poor Performance

First, however, I should say two things

  1. In many regions of the world, you will have laws which mean you need to do this properly, to avoid unwanted complications and problems.  I am not a lawyer and know the laws in precisely none of the legal jurisdictions of the world.
  2. The above does not absolve you of the responsibility to deal properly with poor performance and neither, if you take proper advice and act with care, need it stop you.

Consequently, the following is nothing more than some generic thoughts, which you need to test against local law and your organisation’s policies and procedures.

The Supremacy of Evidence

Rule 1: you can’t act effectively without evidence.  No manager can be effective unless you are constantly aware of your team members’ performance – and that means reviewing evidence of what they are doing and how it compares with the requirements of their roles.  Take into account also any external factors that are affecting their work.

Documentation and Record Keeping

You also need to keep records and document what happens.  Most procedures and, I am sure, most legal systems will require documentary records to provide solid evidence that can back up your judgements and so justify your decisions.  Some systems will require copious data gathering and recording, so be structured and methodical.  Also ensure that your records are kept under lock and key or in strong-password protected files.

Openness and Choice

Be open with the poor performer about what you are observing and the implications it has for their future.  Be clear about the choices they have and the implications of each choice for them.  You cannot make me perform to a specific standard, but you must let me know the implications of my choice not to.

Care and Compassion

Finally, you may want rid of me – for all the right reasons – but that is not a good reason to abandon all compassion for me as a human being and, more important organisationally – to disregard any duty of care that you have towards me during the process, while I am still employed.

Some Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

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Let’s sort out poor performance, Part 2: Turnaround

Last week, we introduced the three components of managing poor performance and dealt with the first one:

  1. The infrastructure you will need
  2. The techniques to turn poor performance around
  3. What to do if you cannot turn the poor performance around

This week, it’s the turn of techniques to turn poor performance around.

Poor Performance

Performance Turnaround Toolbox

The toolbox analogy that Pam Jones describes in The Performance Management Pocketbook is a good one and some of the tools she details in her book are particularly relevant here: feedback, coaching and motivating, in particular.

Let’s list some of the tools in your performance turnaround toolbox.

Feedback

First and foremost, we need to provide open, honest, clear, and factual feedback to the under-performer, about the nature and level of their performance.  Do it early and the problem will be smaller.  Often an early intervention here can bring about swift changes or a genuine request for help, alerting you to causal conditions that you may be able to help with, or at least take account of.

Coaching

For my money, coaching is one of the most powerful ways to support poor performers – as it is to support average, good and excellent performers.  If you don’t have the skills, there are lots of sources of help – not least, the Coaching Pocketbook.  On a recent training course about Performance Coaching, the feedback I had was that this is, itself, a very powerful tool set for managers at all levels.

Goal-setting

Clearly a part of any coaching process, whether you coach or not, you must agree performance goals with the under-performer that are attainable and acceptable to the organisation.  I recommend tiered goals, incrementing in performance level month-by-month, until basic performance standards are achieved.  Why stop there?  If the process works, continue it until the performer reaches their maximum performance capacity.

Resource review

Look at the resources available to the under-performer in their workplace and ensure that they represent all that the performer needs, to succeed.  If not, take rapid remedial action.

Support

What support can you, other managers, and the performer’s colleagues offer them, to help them to tackle their poor performance?

Training/Re-training

Evaluate whether the poor performer needs further training or re-training to address their performance issues.  But do not accept a training course as a panacea: you must place it in the context of goals, support and a regular performance evaluation process, to help them to embed their learning into new practices.

Incentives

You may want to consider incentives – or even their flip-side, penalties.  You should not need to and, if you do, ensure that these will fall wholly within your organisation’s policies.

Job re-structuring

One option is always to re-structure the under-performer’s job either temporarily or permanently, to allow them to perform more effectively.

Re-deployment

Even more radical is the possibility of re-deploying the poor performer into a new role that they can thrive at.  Be careful though: don’t use this as a means to off-load trouble on other managers.  Also be aware that you cannot lawfully change someone’s contract without their consent in most jurisdictions (all?), so only do this after careful consultation with your HR experts and maybe even an HR lawyer.

Options Review

As a last resort, you need to work towards reviewing your poor performer’s wider options with them.  This is, of course, a euphemistic way of alluding to next week’s post about what to do if you cannot create a turnaround.

Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

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Let’s sort out poor performance, Part 1: Infrastructure

Happily, few organisations retain the ‘forced ranking’ system that classifies a fixed proportion of the staff as poor performers at the end of each year and then, as Jack Welch advocated at General Electric, manages them out of the business – or just fires them  A business I once worked for did this and it was as brutal as it was stupid.

Poor Performance

This isn’t to make a naive suggestion that there are no poor performers, nor that we should tolerate poor performance.  We need to identify and handle under-performance at the first sign.  Of course, prevention is better than cure, as we looked at what the positive tools are for performance management a while ago (What is Performance Management?) and also at the reasons for poor performance (The root of the issue).

But what can you do to deal with the poor performance you discover?  In a series of three blogs, we will examine:

  1. The infrastructure you will need
  2. The techniques to turn poor performance around
  3. What to do if you cannot turn the poor performance around

The Infrastructure for dealing with poor performance

A good organisation – and a strong management team – will recognise the reality of poor performance and proactively develop the elements it needs to engage positively with poor performers and manage their performance to turn it around.  Here is my checklist of the assets your organisation will need.

A performance management policy
… so that everyone knows the answer to ‘what next?’

Up to date and clear job descriptions
… to measure performance against

Robust performance monitoring processes
… so that managers have early indications of under-performance and a strong evidence base that allow them to identify and tackle issues early and firmly

A recruitment process (and all that involves)
… to maximise your chances of recruiting the right people and minimising your need for managing poor performance

Training in performance management
… because tools, techniques, policies and procedures are no good unless managers know how to use them

Coaching skills among line managers
… because coaching is one of the best tools for dealing with poor performance

Support mechanisms
… for the managers conducting performance management, who are likely to find it mentally and emotionally challenging and stressful

A disciplinary policy
… in case performance management does not succeed

Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

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