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Nicholson, N. 2003. How to motivate your problem people. Harvard Business Review (January): 57-64.

Summary by Kelly Brummett
Master of Business Administration Program
University of South Florida, Fall 2003

Behavioral Issues Main Page | Human Resource Accounting Main Page

Management theories often suggest that to motivate employees, managers must have a clear vision, a passionate delivery, charismatic logic, and provide incentives. However, very few managers actually possess these qualities and external incentives – pay increases, threat of consequences – rarely motivate employees. Employees who do respond to managers typically are intrinsically motivated. For most managers, the 80-20 rule applies: 80% of their time is spent dealing with 20% of their subordinates.

What does it take to motivate problem employees? The answer is difficult for most management professionals to understand. Managers cannot motivate problem employees, but rather they must motivate themselves. The role of the manager is to create an environment in which their natural motivation is freed and used to achieve goals.

As an example, the following two cases illustrate a problem employee and the steps each manager takes to correct the problem:

Case 1: Annette is a senior designer at a publishing company with a graphic design division who is responsible for Colin, a project team member. Colin has always been a rebel, but nonetheless has a strong work history. After the company restructured to reduce costs and speed turnaround time, Colin began to slack off at work and does not report back to his managers when assignments are completed. Annette believes that Colin’s behavior reflects not only his disregard for rules and procedures, but also his unwillingness to assume more responsibility. Annette feels that Colin’s behavior may be grounds for dismissal, but she decides to try other approaches first, such as demoting Colin to a less stressful position or giving him a written warning at his next performance appraisal.

Case 2: Paolo is a country manager for an international property development firm in Eastern Europe who has recently been placed in charge of George, an accountant with an MBA. George’s job is to sell plots of land and to build alliances with local companies. While George is considered friendly, his performance is less than stellar. He has yet to sell a single piece of land, and the contracts he does sign are typically costly and ill considered. Paolo, on several occasions, has tried to talk with George about his behavior, and each time George promises to change, but never does. Paolo has decided to give George an ultimatum: either improve your performance or you will be terminated. Paolo does have doubts about his decision as employees with George’s qualifications are few and far between in that part of the world.

Both managers believe that if they could only get the employee to see their logic, then the problem would be solved. This line of reasoning is common with managers who try to convince subordinates to change with the manager’s perception of logic. Unfortunately, more problems result, including a game of “tag” in which the manager attempts to motivate the employee, and the employee either evades the manager or if “tagged” quickly discovers a way out. A fundamental point that managers often do not realize is that they cannot change people’s behavior, they cannot even control the actions. Change must be realized within the person, or not at all.

To really help a problem employee change, managers must themselves shift their thinking pattern; they need to look at employees as people to be understood, not problems to be solved. Nicholson refers to this as "decentering". To use this approach, keep in mind the following principles:

1. Everyone has motivational energy. While it may not be visibly obvious in the work place, most employees are passionate about something in their lives.

2. This energy is often blocked in the workplace. Most employees contain their motivation when they believe that their managers do not care for them, which causes the employee to reciprocally dislike his manager.

3. Removing blockages requires employee participation. Take a judo-like approach in dealing with problem employees. That is, use the person’s energy as leverage to achieve your own goals. Try to get the employee to determine solutions on his own, instead of just pushing solutions on him.

The shift in thinking requires that the manager take charge of a situation and resolve it. Too often, managers just become frustrated with problem employees and decide not to deal with them. Managers also must sacrifice their time to resolve the problem, but the time is well spent if a compromise is reached.

Follow three simple steps in handling difficult employees:

Step 1: Create a Rich Picture

When dealing with problem employees, it is important that managers learn all they can about their subordinates. It is common for employees to be dealing with issues outside of work that causes them to perform poorly on the job. Managers should ask themselves questions such as, “What drives this person? What blocks those drives? What might happen if the impediment is removed?” (p. 60). Information about employees can be derived from peers, subordinates, previous employers, and most importantly, the employee himself. It will take a few informal conversations with the employee before he will feel comfortable offering insights into his life. In a matter of ten minutes or so, quite a bit of information can be revealed if the right questions are asked.

Managers should also take the time for self-introspection to determine if they are doing anything to cause the problem with a subordinate. Most people have a different idea about themselves than what others see. It is a good idea to ask friends and co-workers whom you trust for an honest, candid assessment of your personality. Often, managers are surprised by the information learned.

Finally, managers need to analyze the situation. Is something in the current situation bringing out the worst in the employee, or in you?

Step 2: Reframe Your Goals

Managers are better served if they can help a problem employee rehabilitate. Compromise is essential in dealing with difficult employees. By allowing flexibility in determining a solution, managers present the opportunity for new and novel alternatives. However, it is imperative to be firm on sticking points that are critical for success. Employees should know that if a resolution is not reached, then termination might be the final option. Managers may not necessarily get the exact resolution they wanted, but it certainly is better than nothing.

Stage 3: The Encounter

After a manger has learned more about the employee and changed his goals, the next step is to meet with the problem employee. Be sure to conduct the meeting on neutral ground, such as in a conference room, and allow for at least an hour. Give the employee about a day notice and inform him that he does not need to bring any presentation materials, that the meeting is just a review of your relationship. Start the meeting with an affirmation, but also honestly describe the situation from your viewpoint. Next, ask the employee specific questions that will bring helpful and useful information about your differences to light. Great care should be taken during this intense questioning, as it is very easy to just state your opinion. The goal is to learn more about the problem and how to solve it. Finally, the moment of truth – the time when some agreement has been reached. An agreement that satisfies the manager’s goals, as well as one that motivates the employee.

Benefits that are derived from dealing with a problem employee are broad. Not only will the manager hopefully motivate the employee, but also the group. Reaching a resolution with a problem employee boosts morale and sends a message that you are willing to deal difficult people.

Returning to the previous cases, consider what happened after each manager decided how to handle the problem employee.

Case 1: Annette, after starting a new kind of conversation with Colin, realizes that he is a highly motivated individual in other areas of his life, but does not respond to pressure. Annette understands that Colin needs new responsibilities, not more. During her conversations with him, she learns that Colin enjoys helping other people. He suggests the possibility of a training role, one that successfully develops in the future.

Case 2: Paolo thought it would be best to meet with George to explain that advancing beyond George’s current role will require some difficult choices. George agrees that he is not performing at his best and is willing to move into a position with less customer interaction. Unfortunately, two weeks after the meeting, George accepted a job offer from another company.

While Paolo’s situation did not end as well as Annette’s, both managers benefited from dealing with the problem employee.


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