Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

How to Handle the “Bad Apples” on Your Team

Wow, suddenly I’ve had several clients ask me how to deal with the “bad apples” on their teams. The folks who don’t seem motivated, don’t deliver what they promise and seem to spend a good amount of their time complaining and bringing the rest of the team down.

In line with my 3-T (Train, Transfer or Terminate) philosophy let me outline what I feel are some of the things a prudent manager/leader needs to do to try to turn this sort of worker around.

The first step is always to look in the mirror and ask yourself these questions:

  • What am I doing to cause this situation?
  • Have I given this person all of the help, support, training and resources they need?
  • Have I honestly and clearly communicated my concerns and specifically what they need to do to improve?
  • Do they have the skills and abilities to succeed at the work I have given them?
  • Would they do a better job and be truly successful in another role in our organization?

If you can answer all of these questions and you still feel like it is their attitude that is the problem, here are a few other steps to consider:

What is motivating them (or not motivating them) that is causing them to act this way? I look at the word this way: Motivation = “Motive for Action.” People do things for THEIR reasons – not yours. So what is driving their behavior? I believe that people always do the best they can with what they have – so you need to get in there and figure how to tie-in something motivating and important to this person… with quality job performance. They need to see that doing well at work will have a positive impact on something that is of value to them – something they are truly motivated by. By the way, this is really hard.

If the motivation thing don’t work – then it turns to D&D or “direction and documentation” (remember the different types of Situational Leadership? Now we move from Cheerleader and Teacher modes to the Director mode – not a place you want to have to stay for long). At this stage it is time to put them on a formal “Improvement Plan.” Now is when you lay out a written and specific overview of precisely where their performance is not acceptable and you build a clear and measurable plan to get them to where they need to be.

I have a unique way to approach this that I feel adds a lot value: I ask the person to build their own plan – in their own words — and with specific measure of success and failure that they develop. I do this so there will be no argument later that they did not understand what they needed to do, or that it was unfair. If they built it – they will own it.Of course I sit down and go over it with them and we usually negotiate a few items, change a few, add a few – but I want it to clearly be from them – in their words. Then I ask for three more lists:

What will you need from me in order to successfully complete your plan? What sort of reward should you get if you achieve your plan? What should the ramifications be if you cannot achieve your goals?

Typically the reward they ask for will be pretty fair and the punishment they list will be termination. If they successfully complete the plan then you get to give them a big pat on the back and deliver the reward you agreed to – this is a win/win. If they cannot achieve the goals and you did everything you were supposed to do to help them – then it has been my experience that most of these folks simply quit on their own when they realize they cannot deliver what they promised. This is also a win/win. And yes, I have actually had several people “fire” themselves!

A VERY important element though is that the list MUST be very specific, measurable and when possible, clearly observable. The ONLY way to take emotion, perception and opinion out of the equation is for you and the person to work on their goals to get them 100% quantifiable. They need to be binary – either they got it or they did not. No argument, no guessing, no “I don’t feel like you did it.” It has to be completely clear so that it is never your opinion of their performance vs. their opinion. That is a no-win situation.

If you go through all of this and they do not achieve their goals… and do not want to quit, you now have all of the documentation you’ll probably need for a defendable termination. My only last comment here is to be sure to keep HR in the loop and try to always have a neutral third party in the room when you have serious conversations with this person. It is a pain to do this sort of CYA stuff, but it can alleviate a lot of pain and “he said-she-said” situations down the road.

Well, I hope that helped. I am sure there are several more things to add to this list, but it is a good start at what you need to be thinking about if you have a problem employee.

I look forward to your comments — John