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Dealing With Office Problem Children
By Douglas Katz

Workplace problem children – everybody has them.  From Dwight on The Office to the entire cast of characters in Office Space, these leadership challenges have even found their way into popular culture.  Unfortunately, they are all too real in the modern workplace. Whether as legacies left behind by a previous leader or new hires that were not evaluated during the interview process, these individuals can undermine your leadership efforts.

Regardless of the specific situation, problem employees represent a triple threat when it comes to your team reaching its full potential.  First and foremost, everyone on a team needs to pull his or her weight in order for the group to succeed.  Lack of performance can be an anchor to this effort.  Their toxic attitudes can spread beyond their own cube, and sap the morale of the other team members.  You need to deal with your problem children and their issues or they will hamstring you, forcing your focus to shift from improvement to crisis management.  Not addressed, these problems will inhibit your team’s progress so it falls squarely on you, as an effective leader, to solve this personnel problem for the good of the team.

Recognize that this represents one of the more burdensome aspects of leadership.  Although straightforward, it is exceedingly difficult and time consuming.  Every situation will be different and challenging.  Each individual, after all, has his or her own idiosyncrasies and reasons for sub-par performance.  In addition, they will rarely interface with you quietly and cooperatively.  If they did, they probably would not be problems in the first place.  Likely, you will hear a creative array of excuses presented as justification.  Sometimes, these may even entail gut-wrenching family and personal issues.  Stick to your plan and think BOARD (a helpful mnemonic) and you will come out on top.

-Buffer – It is essential that you do what you can to mitigate the problem team members’ influence on the rest of the team.  One effective way to accomplish this is to take them out of the equation and insulate them from the rest of the team.  This can involve geographical separation, assignment to peripheral duties, such as special projects, or both.  Regardless of the exact solution, you need to ensure that the overall performance of the team is minimally influenced by your leadership challenge.

-Observe – Once identified, your problem child will require close attention with an eye on performance and action.  Take special care to watch and document behavioral and performance-related activities. This will allow you to effectively coach the individual with advice and counseling based on objective information. This step will enable you to build a coherent and objective case for separation should that route become necessary.

-Assess – With information in hand, you are required to ascertain the possibility for the problem child to be reintegrated into the team.  As with all steps of this process, the assessment must be based on a purely objective determination of past performance and future potential. Anything that you decide must have sufficient supporting documentation or you risk allegations of discrimination or favoritism.

-Retrain – Regardless of your assessment, you will likely need to show that you have made an honest effort to reform your problem child.  This should entail retraining as to the policies of your organization, the roles and responsibilities expected of the individual and the technical aspects of their job.  This will ensure that you salvage those team members who have the willingness to change and the potential to benefit the team.  It also ensures that you avoid any sticky situations regarding ambiguity should you need to separate..

-Decide – After retraining, you need to once again observe to see if there is any improvement and decide what to do.  If the problem employee is making progress you can keep him or her on a probationary status and continue to develop them.  If they continue to perform below the standard or if they slip further, you need to cut them loose.  No matter how difficult the person is, this activity is never easy or fun.  You will, however, see vast overall improvement when it is done.

It all comes down to understanding that your duty is to the team.  You cannot afford to have anyone who fails to contribute, or – worse yet — continue to undermine the overall team effort, or your authority.  These problem children will eat away at morale and performance.  With a disciplined, objective approach, you will easily solve this problem and move on to the better, more rewarding aspects of leadership.

Douglas Katz is a Co-Founder and Vice-President of LEADINGSCHOOL LLC (http://www.leadingschool.com). He is a 1993 graduate of the United States Military Academy and a 2001 graduate of Loyola University Chicago. He has sucessfully served in a wide variety of leadership positions across a diverse range of organizations, industries and environments to include the United States Army, Tellabs, and Citigroup.

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