Handling the problem employee

Motivating problem employees is a perennial challenge for IT managers. Nigel Nicholson, argues that trying to motivate hard cases may be the wrong approach.

          Motivating problem employees is a perennial challenge for IT managers. In this month's Harvard Business Review, Nigel Nicholson, the director of the Centre for Organisational Research at London Business School, argues that trying to motivate such people may be the wrong approach. He talked with Kathleen Melymuka about a method designed to help them motivate themselves.

          Why is trying to motivate a problem IT person the wrong approach?

          You have to help people try to find their own ways to motivate themselves. I'm talking about intrinsic motivation -- about hearts and minds. Your job is more to clear away the undergrowth.

          Give me an example of how not to motivate a problem person in IT. Telling someone how interesting you find these problems they're working on or how lucky they are to have such an interesting job when you know that they don't find it interesting.

          How do you begin a different approach?

          First of all, it's about finding out where the people are misaligned.

          If you listen, they will tell you. Often, they're misaligned with the environment. If, for example, they're on the helpdesk and they really don't like dealing with people, take them off the helpdesk.

          A typical problem is trying to motivate a subordinate who thinks he's better technically than the manager. That gets in the way, but it needn't.

          What do you do about that?

          There's nothing wrong with managing someone more skilled than you. It happens all the time. You say, "I know you have more skills than I have. What can we do to help each other make this operation a success for both of us?" It's a partnership problem.

          This sounds fairly simple. But it can be difficult because often the person is someone you really haven't got a lot of sympathy or empathy with. You don't like the person or perhaps you've had a row with him. We're not really motivated to understand people with whom we've had some bad experience. Often we're more concerned with being right and their being wrong.

          Once you understand the person better, what do you do next?

          Instead of saying your goal is to motivate this person, you may have to start with something simpler -- perhaps to open up a channel of communication so you can begin to work together. You can worry about motivation later, but if you haven't got a channel open, you can't work with them.

          You say the manager also needs to re-evaluate himself and the work context. Tell me about that. You may get off on the wrong foot with a person over a bad exchange, and you take that as a sign he's a bad person, and it starts to spiral. But perhaps you haven't been handling him right, and you're bringing out the worst in him. You may need to change the way you communicate with him.

          Where does this all lead?

          You stage a formal encounter. You say, "We have a problem and we need to figure out what it is, and if we see the world differently, that is part of the problem. We need to get the same view." It amounts to your seeing the world from his point of view, and that helps you to help him center.

          Then what?

          In the course of this encounter, you may discover things you didn't know. You may even have to call a timeout for more reframing of your goals. Or this may take you on a collision course to the point where the person is dismissed. But at least you'll know why you're doing it.

          All this seems enormously time-consuming. After all, the IT manager has a department to run. These issues are not separate from your job; this is your job.

          In the end, you will gain time because you will reduce problems. You will discover that you've been treading water, and now you'll move ahead.

          But what if you're just coddling a person who really ought to be fired?

          You need to decide whether there's a recovery path or not. If the answer is no, then don't even get into this. I'm trying to avoid the danger that comes when you try to settle a performance problem and it escalates to the point where you do have to fire someone, when you could have solved the problem.

          Good IT people are enormously valuable. You can't afford to toss them over the wall when you have a problem.

          You say there are benefits to this approach that go beyond the manager and the problem employee. What are they?

          If you help a disruptive person find some new way, your reputation will become enhanced, the culture will improve, and you will forestall other problems. People will start to regain confidence in the way things are run and see that you believe in working for constructive solutions. That has a tremendous impact, and if you do it right, you'll be loved for it.

          Melymuka is a Computerworld US contributing writer.

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