Coaching Problem Employees
Do you have a difficult subordinate who needs coaching? In this episode of HBR’s advice podcast, Dear HBR:, cohosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn answer your questions with the help of Melvin Smith, a professor at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and coauthor of the book Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth. They talk through what to do when your new employee is slacking off, a new hire needs to adjust to your organization’s culture and communication style, or you have to coach two direct reports who are in conflict with each other.
Listen to more episodes and find out how to subscribe on the Dear HBR: page. Email your questions about your workplace dilemmas to Dan and Alison at [email protected].
From Alison and Dan’s reading list for this episode:
HBR: You Can’t Be a Great Manager If You’re Not a Good Coach by Monique Valcour — “As a manager, you have a high level of expertise that you’re used to sharing, often in a directive manner. This is fine when you’re clarifying action steps for a project you’re leading or when people come to you asking for advice. But in a coaching conversation, it’s essential to restrain your impulse to provide the answers. Your path is not your employee’s path. Open-ended questions, not answers, are the tools of coaching. You succeed as a coach by helping your team members articulate their goals and challenges and find their own answers.”
Book: Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth by Richard E. Boyatzis, Melvin Smith, and Ellen Van Oosten — “This is what great coaches do. It’s what great managers do and great teachers do and what others do who know how to help people find and do what they love. They engage us in conversations that inspire us. They make us want to develop and change, and they help us do so.”
HBR: How to Motivate Your Problem People by Nigel Nicholson — “Yes, it can be time-consuming, difficult, and fraught with risks and setbacks: Although some employees may respond quickly to your approach, others might require time to rebuild positive relationships with you and their work. But at least they will be heading in the right direction, under their own steam. And in the end, you ideally will have not only a rehabilitated employee but also a healthier, more productive organization.”
HBR: How to Manage a Stubborn, Defensive, or Defiant Employee by Liz Kislik — “Some of the hardest employees to manage are people who are consistently oppositional. They might actively debate or ignore feedback, refuse to follow instructions they disagree with, or create a constant stream of negative comments about new initiatives. Most often, these behaviors are meant to make the employee look strong and mask a fear of change, an aversion to anticipated conflict, or the worry that they will look stupid or incompetent.”
DAN MCGINN: Welcome to Dear HBR: from Harvard Business Review. I’m Dan McGinn.
ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Work can be frustrating. But it doesn’t have to be. We don’t need to let the conflicts get us down.
DAN MCGINN: That’s where Dear HBR: comes in. We take your questions, look at the research, talk to the experts, and help you move forward. Today we’re talking about coaching problem employees with Melvin Smith. He’s a professor at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, and he’s the coauthor of the book, Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth. Melvin, thanks for being on the show.
MELVIN SMITH: Thanks for having me, Dan and Alison.
DAN MCGINN: So is coaching a problem employee as hard as it seems?
MELVIN SMITH: It can be. I mean, there are a number of situations that could arise that make someone a, quote-unquote, problem employee. It requires a lot of resourcefulness and insight as to how to best move through those situations.
ALISON BEARD: How long do you work with a problem employee before you decide it’s just not going to work, they’re uncoachable?
MELVIN SMITH: I don’t know that I have in my mind a specific period of time. If it gets to the point where you see, there’s just no movement occurring, then it might need to move into another phase, where maybe it’s more of a performance management issue than a coaching issue.
ALISON BEARD: Surely, though, in your experience, you’ve seen some great success stories.
MELVIN SMITH: Right, exactly. And I think that really hinges upon the approach that you take in coaching. I see fewer success stories when you take an approach that we call coaching for compliance, where you try to fix an employee. But if you can really kind of help get under the covers and figure out, you know, what is it that they’re trying to accomplish? Who is it they’re trying to become within the organization and beyond? Quite often you see tremendous success stories with that approach.
ALISON BEARD: Dear HBR: I’m a young woman working in the public sector. A year ago, I made my first hire and recruited another young woman to be an executive assistant supporting me, two grades more senior than her, and my boss, the director-general of the organization eight grades above her. Her performance was subpar. In trying to coach her, I discovered that she takes little accountability. She would use excuses like the deadline was too long and far away, so of course, I missed it. Or, it’s summertime, and I’m in a holiday mood. Or even, he’ll check it before submissions anyway, so I didn’t double-check my own work. Every time I spoke to her about it, she agreed to change. But she soon resumed her old practices. Eventually, she stopped logging her work and just repeated, I don’t know, to anything I asked her during our performance catch-ups. I put here on probation, and as I was about to terminate it, we had a conversation together with our boss. She hid her attitude problems and provided fake reasons for her poor performance. He only knew her as the amiable and supportive assistant who just needed more time to gain exposure and experience. So he insisted on giving her another chance. He trusted her explanation that the duties I gave her were too difficult, which wasn’t true. But he’s too big picture focused to check the details and find out. At that point, I was losing sleep. I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night feeling guilty and incompetent about the fact that I couldn’t help her improve. Other nights I’d lie awake thinking about what a fool I was to think I could change someone’s core values with coaching. I finally told my boss I’d rather not manage her, and even offered to take up all the duties I would normally delegate to her. My boss promised to find me other support, and meanwhile changed the assistant’s job description to include the duties she enjoys. I thought this nightmare would end when I distanced myself from her, but she carried on giving me a difficult time, sending me passive-aggressive emails or jeopardizing my work. I don’t want to discuss this with my manager again. We had the perfect working relationship until this assistant arrived, and she isn’t worth me going into a battle with my own boss. As the director, he’s never personally impacted by her misbehavior. And I know my experience is less important than other items on his priority list. Also, he’ll leave this position in six months. This seems like both an opportunity and a risk for me. I’m the quiet, qualified type who uses my work to demonstrate my worth. And it takes a while for me to build relationships. I’m worried that this assistance can easily manipulate the new director and sabotage me with her tricks again. What can I do to survive? Wow, Melvin, this is a tough one. What do you think?
MELVIN SMITH: [LAUGHTER] First of all, I’d like to just take a step back, even, and just commend the writer for even trying to coach this employee consistently through these performance issues she was experiencing. So, I mean, she could have reverted just strictly to telling the person what to do, not what you needed to do to get better, etc. But it sounds like she really tried to coach her through those performance difficulties. I’m curious, however, if she ever assessed this individual’s coaching readiness. In other words, was this person really interested in and willing to be coached by her? Because that’s something that’s key. It sounds like the person might not have been ready to be coached, first of all.
DAN MCGINN: That’s a great point. It makes me think of basketball or some other sport. One of the attributes they’ll often talk about is whether the person is coachable or not. And you’re saying that applies to the workplace, too. How do you identify if somebody’s coachable?
MELVIN SMITH: Yeah, so first of all, I mean, it’s just questioning and discussion and seeing if the person even recognizes that there might be a need for change in their behavior. If that person doesn’t recognize that, and they receive some feedback to indicate that that is indeed the case, then that next step is, well, are they open and willing to go through some process where they receive some assistance or facilitation in changing that behavior. And then I think the other thing is that you need to assess, are they willing to be and ready to be coached by you?
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, it sounds like this woman wasn’t ever going to accept coaching or even direction from our letter writer. The word that I seized on in here was core values. An author that I’ve worked with quite frequently, Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, studies potential and how you identify it in people. And the very first hallmark, which sort of is, you have to clear this hurdle to get anywhere, is integrity. Just in terms of the fact that she’s acting like a classic Machiavelli or what Adam Grant calls a “taker,” when you have a person like that, it does seem like distancing was the right approach. Do you feel the same way, Melvin?
MELVIN SMITH: I do. I agree completely. I mean, as we suggested earlier, there are certain times when you get to the point where you realize coaching is not the solution in this particular case. But it seems like from her response, even though she distanced herself, this person is still having an impact on her and her work, which is, to me, is the troubling piece, so I think that there’s other behavior she needs to consider, even though she has quote-unquote somewhat distanced herself from this person.
ALISON BEARD: So does that mean another conversation with the boss?
MELVIN SMITH: I think so. It sounds like she’s a little bit afraid to take the boss’s time, but I think she needs to kind of reframe that situation a little bit and be a little bit more confident. I mean, I think he’s a strong employee, it sounds like. She’s been promoted a couple of times in her first five years there. And so she’s doing well, and I think she’s well thought of. But she seems to lack a little confidence, and I think she needs to be a little bit more assertive in this case, and communicating exactly what’s going on from her perspective, so that this employee, who’s very manipulative, is not really controlling the narrative that way that she seems to be currently.
DAN MCGINN: I thought our listener handled it really, really well, as I was reading the letter, right up until the point where she says that the boss will be leaving the position in six months, and that she sees risk here, that the new person might come in and not see the situation for what it is. Is there anything she can do to kind of document it or make the case sort of in advance that the new boss will be sort of apprised of the issues with this assistant?
MELVIN SMITH: Yeah, Dan. That’s exactly what I would recommend. I mean, if she’s not already doing it, I would recommend that she begin to document everything, things that have happened historically in this relationship, communications that have occurred, what’s been said, what’s been done, but especially being careful about anything going forward, saving emails, taking notes if she has face-to-face conversations, and just being able to, with the new boss, just lay out: Hey look, just so you know, here’s kind of, the landscape of where we are as a department, what’s going on. So that there’s some sense of this history. And again, I would get out in front of that and not let this employee, who I think, as we’ve said, is very manipulative, again, get to this person first, and then paint a different picture, an inaccurate picture. So I would document and then share what’s actually occurred.
ALISON BEARD: So I have two thoughts on what she should do going forward. First, in relation to the new boss coming in, I worry about her going and saying like, oh, here’s this huge problem that you’re walking into, and let me begin by complaining about, you know, this colleague. What I’d like to see her do is learn from this manipulator. What does she do well with the director, with the senior bosses, to make people think that she is highly competent and a person they want around and someone with potential? You know, I think we’ve shown, particularly for women, just putting your head down and being quietly competent is not enough. Secondly, I think that she should have a direct confrontation with this woman. It seems like she approached her in a very respectful, managerial way all along, and I don’t think that she should give up on the respect, but I think she should state in clear and in certain terms that this behavior will not be tolerated going forward. She has relinquished her managerial responsibilities. She has put this woman in a position to succeed because she is now doing the duties that she likes. And the passive-aggressive behavior, the saboteur behavior will no longer be tolerated.
MELVIN SMITH: I agree with you completely, Alison. That’s a great suggestion. And as far as addressing the behavior directly, that’s something she probably should have done earlier, but since she didn’t, I think there is a point when that conversation needs to take place. The longer that you allow disrespectful or inappropriate behavior to go on, the more likely it is to continue. So at some point, I think you really do need to stand up and say, OK, this will or will not be tolerated. This is or is not acceptable. So that conversation, I think, is a crucial one to have. But I would still make sure, if I were her, that I documented everything. And even though you’re right, I don’t think she should kind of approach the new boss and say, hey, look, here’s this problem you’re walking into, I think she wants to have all of her ducks in a row and information together in case this other employee kind of paints some inaccurate or untrue picture of what’s occurred, so she can at some point have a conversation with the new boss and say, no, here’s what really occurred. Let me explain it to you and show it to you, the kinds of conversation that have taken place, and what’s really happened here.
ALISON BEARD: Absolutely.
MELVIN SMITH: Yeah, she enabled this behavior, unfortunately. I mean, she, for far too long, I think she just enabled this person to kind of do what she wanted to do and just take advantage of her.
DAN MCGINN: I’m not sure I would do this, but is there a case that our listener should go to the boss and say, listen, you know, I know you don’t want to deal with this because you’re going to be moving on, but don’t you have an obligation to help clear this up before a new person comes in? Shouldn’t we sort of clean up our mess here?
MELVIN SMITH: Hm, that’s an interesting perspective. It assumes that he realizes that there is an issue, and he’s just choosing not to, as you said, because hey, I’ve got, I’m moving on. It’s not my problem. I don’t know that he even realizes that it’s an issue, though. I think he really has been manipulated by this person, and I think he may even see her as, oh, she’s fine. She seems to be very good at what she does about kind of painting this picture that’s something other than what’s really going on. So, again, I don’t if it’s that he’s not dealing with it, or that he’s not aware of it.
DAN MCGINN: Good, well, Alison, it’s still technically summertime, and I’m kind of in a holiday mood right now. I don’t feel like doing any work. Do you mind doing the summary? [LAUGHTER]
ALISON BEARD: So, first we applaud her efforts for attempting to coach this woman. It was a valiant effort, but probably no fault on her part that she didn’t succeed. We would love for our listener to begin to document this person’s behavior going forward in a more effective way, so that should a confrontation between the two in front of the old boss or the new boss arise again, she can make her case more effectively. We would like to see her have a direct confrontation with this woman to say, look, I tried working with you. I tried coaching you. What we’ve done is shifted you to different duties and responsibilities, and I am no longer your manager, so it’s very clear that we should not have this difficult a relationship anymore, and I don’t, I won’t tolerate it. And then finally we’d like to see her prepare herself for conversations with the incoming boss, both with the documentation, but also learning how to promote herself in a better way, figuring out her own way of putting forth her achievements and not just putting her heads down and working.
DAN MCGINN: Dear HBR: I manage a team of 12 healthcare professionals. I would like some advice around supporting a sensitive new graduate employee. My team includes a number of big personalities. And the nature of the work means that staff needs to be able to give and receive direction and feedback routinely from both myself as the manager and from their fellow teammates. My new hire has been with the company for less than a month, her first job out of university. We’re both women, by the way. There have already been a few occasions where she’s gotten feedback from one of her colleagues, and she’s responded by running out of the work area in tears. In one case, I mediated between this staff member and the one that offended her. She spent the entire meeting rehashing, word by word, what the other person said and did, over and over, seemingly unable to move past the incident. When asked if she could respect her teammate’s perspective and move forward, she gave a flat no. She followed with a lengthy explanation about how collaboration will now be difficult going forward and casting all of the blame on her colleague. In this employee’s defense, the delivery of the feedback could have been less blunt, but it is also important that her teammates don’t feel like they have to walk on eggshells around her. Very often, time is of the essence for them, and there isn’t always room for obligatory niceties when a client is at risk. I feel that this woman perhaps lacks the resilience and emotional intelligence to be successful in her role at this time. The team culture overall is fabulous. While there are occasional differences of opinion, they’re always resolved with respect, empathy, and no lasting grudges. This employee, by contrast, appears to have trouble taking any responsibility for her own behavior and assumes malice on her colleagues’ part. How can I support this staff member to deal with healthy confrontations in a mature and solutions-focused way?
MELVIN SMITH: Yeah, great question here from the writer. I think this represents an excellent opportunity for this letter writer to do some coaching. While I think she appropriately sees the need for this new employee that’s been hired to be a little more resilient in the face of receiving feedback, especially critical feedback from others, it’s likely to be more effective if she coaches her through that rather than simply providing her with that direct feedback. I mean, she could say, hey, look, you just need to have tougher skin, toughen it up and suck it up and get through this. I don’t think that’s going to be as effective as coaching through this, especially given how this person has shown already that she responds to critical feedback from her colleagues, as well as how she’s responded to feedback or instances or suggestions from the boss as well.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I think the crying in the moment is one thing. You know, it’s a natural biological response to stress. I cry easily, and I have cried at work before. What’s telling about this employee is that you know, she didn’t just respond that way in the moment. She sort of kept it up and defended her behavior and continued to blame her colleague. So if she’s going to coach her, knowing that, you know, she lacks resilience, she lacks emotional intelligence, she’s highly defensive, how do you begin that conversation? How do you figure out what’s going to make her change?
MELVIN SMITH: Yeah, great question. So I would start by really kind of backing it up and asking this individual, you know, how she would like to be seen in the organization? She’s new. What are her aspirations within the organization? How does she want her colleagues to view her? And then move on and ask her, what does she think, or how does she think she’s currently being perceived? Ideally, this person, unless she lacks self-awareness completely, will say and admit to herself that, OK, I’m not currently being seen the way I’d like to be seen. You could then further probe and see, well, what behaviors are potentially contributing to these current perceptions? Right? Things like crying and running out of the room, and then ask her, what alternative behaviors might lead to a different and more desirable perception of you here in the organization? And have her begin to think through and talk through for herself, well, OK, here’s what’s going on. Yeah, I see this is probably not the best kind of action here that I’ve been demonstrating, and I can see how people might not see me the way that I’d like to see them if I’m behaving in this way. And then really begin to brainstorm. OK, what might she try in terms of new behaviors alternatives to letting her emotions kind of get the best of her and just running out of the room? What else might she be able to do, and how might she best be able to do that? Those are just some thoughts for some of the initial kind of conversations if she were going to coach this individual, or questions she might ask.
DAN MCGINN: When we think about crying at work, there’s often a gendered component to that. You know, stereotypically some people might feel that that’s a reaction that females are more likely to have than males. I wonder if there’s a generational component here. You know, there’s this perception that younger people these days are a little bit more fragile emotionally. Some people use the word snowflakes. Is that a component to this, do you think?
MELVIN SMITH: Potentially, yeah. So again, and it goes back to that whole notion of how she’d like to be perceived and whether she’s perceived more harshly because she cried, because she’s younger, [or] because she’s female. That’s neither here nor there in my view. But she knows for sure that, OK, wow, people are not perceiving me in the light that I’d like to be perceived because of that behavior. Then she needs to figure out, I think, well, how might I do something differently than that? And I although think that, so it’s common to feel emotions. Many people feel emotions, and I think the issue for her is how she can then control those emotions? And what can she do to think about what, how she responds when she’s feeling these emotions? That’s the key.
ALISON BEARD: What worries me most is the defensiveness, because I imagine our listener saying all the things that you just said, Melvin, and her saying, but this wasn’t me. It was this colleague who was rude. And so, when someone is defensive, how do you break through that to get them to be willing to consider change?
MELVIN SMITH: Right, that can be difficult when there’s not a willingness to own up to anything that’s going on in your own behavior. I think one thing is, in the course of the coaching discussion or conversation, is just being able to share some information if she’s willing to hear information that’s shared, and yes, maybe the feedback that was given was harsh or felt that it was harsh. But in our environment, fast-paced, that’s the way that we have tended to operate, you can be sure, and others have been able to very effectively get past and deal with that. So just helping the person realize it’s not necessarily the giver of the feedback or the direction. It might be, there might be something upon her in terms of thinking about how she then interprets and receives that.
DAN MCGINN: So we’ve been focusing on how our listener is going to coach this new young employee. Is there any part of this conversation that should involve the rest of the staff here, either alerting people, number one, that hey, she’s new. She’s young. She’s a little bit sensitive. If you could be mindful of how you’re offering feedback to her, as she transitions into the workplace, I’d appreciate it. Or number two, with the specific colleague with whom she had the confrontation, does she need to do any bridge building or try to repair that relationship at all?
MELVIN SMITH: Yeah, I was thinking about that as we were kind of going through the details of the letter that was written. And I think it sounds like, for the most part, the style and the interactions have been working very well for this team. So I don’t see it as being a big problem. But to your point, this is a new employee, and as a team, you need to be able to understand and interact with effectively all the members of the team. So even though everyone else seems to be able to deal with this environment, where feedback is given in this manner, if it’s not working for her, perhaps there is an opportunity on the part of those giving the feedback to be a little more sensitive. Not that what they’re doing is problematic or inappropriate in any way, but maybe the feedback would be better received for this person if they softened it a bit. So I don’t think it would hurt to have that conversation in general with the team, and maybe in particularly with this person that really has kind of been involved in this situation here.
ALISON BEARD: In this instance, though, because there is such a great team culture, I worry that saying, well, you all need to modify your behavior that’s been working for all these years for this new employee, might breed resentment. But I think it’s a worthwhile thing to do. I just think maybe putting sort of a timestamp on it, you know, saying for the next couple of months or something, we’re not going to change the way we work, obviously, but let’s get her up to speed. I do think after all of these things have been attempted, it’s definitely worth asking down the line, you know, is this really the right work environment for you? You know, workplaces operate in very, very different ways, and it’s important for managers and employees to evaluate whether the people in those workplaces can hack it. You know? In a way, this woman does need to toughen up, and I don’t think that’s the way that our listener should approach it. But if after six months she can’t handle it, then it’s probably not the right place for her.
MELVIN SMITH: I think you’re right. And during that time, again, I think continuing to coach her, and giving her some tools, even beyond the specific situation, just helping her learn to be more emotionally intelligent, for instance, I think the letter writer recognizes that maybe that’s lacking. So giving her some tools and helping her learn how to be more self-aware, to really be able to self-assess and to understand her own emotions and her own behaviors and the role that those play in her interactions with others. But importantly, being able to give her some tools to exhibit that emotional self-control and resilience, etc. So time and then, again, continued coaching around developing that capacity, that ability to deal with that tough situation, I think would be well-served here.
ALISON BEARD: So Dan, what are we telling her?
DAN MCGINN: Well, we think there’s a temptation in this situation to encourage the new worker to develop a tougher skin, but that’s probably the wrong way to go in this case. This is really a coaching opportunity, and you might start that coaching with three questions. How would you like to be perceived in the organization over the long term? Do you think you’re currently being perceived that way? And if the answer is no, what do you plan to do to change that? Focusing on the long term aspiration, the current situation, and the steps from here to there is a great way to get the person being coached to try to formulate a plan for this journey themselves. The fact that she ran out of the room crying is not the end of the world. Crying is a biological impulse. It happens in the workplace from time to time. It’s normal. We think that some of the coaching conversation may want to include the team, just alerting people, hey, she’s new. It’s going to take her a few months to get up to speed. Maybe be a little bit more gentle in the short term while she onboards would be an appropriate thing to say. Put some time on it, whether it’s three months, whether it’s six months. Ultimately she’s going to need to fit in and be able to take feedback quickly and directly, and that’s really the goal of the coaching here.
ALISON BEARD: Dear HBR: I just took a position managing a large team. Recently, a minor miscommunication between two honest and competent team members resulted in both of them coming to my office in tears complaining about the other person. One even complained about the hostile work environment. Each employee assumes the other is seeking to undermine them. The real issue is, the first employee can be very gruff and is sometimes inappropriate in delivering feedback to junior employees. The second employee is often off-site when they’re supposed to be on site. The two have come to resent one another deeply for these behaviors. I know I need to address each of these issues with them individually. But I want to continue to demonstrate respect. How can I tell the one that they’re mean to junior staff? And how can I tell the other that they’re diminishing team morale and causing me headaches by taking liberties with their attendance? Melvin, what do you think?
MELVIN SMITH: This is interesting. This is in some ways similar to the previous letter writer in terms of the kind of giving and receiving of feedback and how that’s affecting individuals on the team. In this case, however, I think it’s a good opportunity for coaching around communication styles on both sides. So I think this letter writer might want to coach both employees on how to more effectively manage conflict or their communication styles within the team.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I mean, I think this issue is different because it’s interpersonal conflict. Right? It’s two employees who resent each other, don’t seem to like each other, and don’t like the way one another conducts themselves in the workplace. You know, I think that if I was on site all the time, and saw that someone was never in the office, that would annoy me, and I might snap at them occasionally. I think that if I was someone who expected to always be treated with respect and deference, that someone being mean to me would annoy me. So I think you’re right, that this is managing conflict. How are we going to get past that to work together?
MELVIN SMITH: Yes, this is, I think what the letter writer might want to do is, I would start individually, for sure, in working with these individuals, and I would have them, and just walk through the situation. OK, so before all this started, and you reached a point to where you really have this deep resentment, kind of what happened to trigger it, in your opinion, and kind of have the person talk about that a little bit. And say, so what was said? What was done? And how did that make you feel? You know, and so, and then how did you respond to that? How was your response received, would be kind of the next thing you could ask. OK, well, what’s another possible way potentially that you could have responded that might have been received more favorably? So just helping to dissect the situation, having them reexperience kind of what it felt like in the moment, and thinking about their part in it, and what they might have done differently to create a better overall outcome? That’s something that the letter writer might consider.
DAN MCGINN: That sounds like a great coaching plan. I wonder if it’s important for our listener to keep in mind that there might be a limit to how successful this can be. I mean, I think the reality is, when you’re managing a larger team, it’s inevitable that some of the team members are going to like each other better, and some might like each other worse. Is there a place in this to recognize, hey, these two people are a little bit like oil and water, and I’m not going to be able to entirely fix that?
MELVIN SMITH: Great point, Dan. Potentially. I think there still can be a role for coaching these individuals on how to, to the best of their ability, interact with and get along with these, with this coworker that they respectively don’t necessarily like or enjoy working with. But it’s not an option to not work with them, so they’re going to have to learn how to function together effectively. The other thing I would suggest is that this is one of those situations, in my view, to where you have your manager’s hat on, and you can do some coaching, but sometimes you also need to kind of just wear your manager’s hat and manage performance. So there’s some things happening here that I think might need to go beyond coaching and just be dealt with as a manager. So for instance, if there’s inappropriate things being said or done, that needs to be addressed, and we need to draw the line and say, OK, there are acceptable behaviors, but then there are unacceptable behaviors. We will not talk and speak to one another in a certain way. So you need to kind of lay some ground rules there. On the other side, the person that has felt offended and doesn’t like this person, who is not showing up for work when they’re supposed to be there, again, that’s a performance issue. I think there’s a conversation that needs to be had that says, OK, I understand that you don’t like so and so. But you can’t let your resentment of this person lead to you not being at work when you’re supposed to be at work. That’s not an option. There needs to be another way that you figure out how to handle that situation. So again, I think it goes beyond coaching, to a degree, in this situation. And moves to a need to manage performance with both of these individuals involved.
ALISON BEARD: Honestly, I was a little bit surprised reading this letter, because our listener is a manager of 12 people. And she seems to be hesitant to coach and hesitant to reprimand. Has she been too hands-off because her employees are competent?
MELVIN SMITH: Yeah, it sounds like that could be the case. So maybe being more proactive as a manager and coach, especially because if some people are feeling that there’s this hostile environment that’s been created, I think she has a role to address that.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I think, you know, I started out saying like, oh, this is a conflict between two people. But actually, our letter writer seems to suggest that the behaviors that have created this conflict actually affect other members on the team. You know, our, the one employee is gruff to all junior staff, and I’m sure that the absences of the other employee are creating resentment in a broader sense on the team. So I feel like if you can coach, not around this particular instance, where everyone came to the office crying, but more, you know, here’s what I’m hearing not just from this person, who you have an antagonistic relationship with, but here’s what I’m hearing from other members on the team as well. You know, that might be a way to broaden the situation and cause these problem employees to figure out that they need to change.
MELVIN SMITH: That’s a great point. So it makes it less personal in terms of this one relationship that’s really causing this deep resentment and taking it up a level. And so I think you’re right. So I think as a manager here, the letter writer has an opportunity to really work with the team and do some work at the team level about their interactions and the nature of their interactions and how, again, they communicate, and how they handle conflict, and how they deal with challenging issues on the team. I think there’s something that they all can learn from here, and not just these two individuals.
DAN MCGINN: Melvin, one thing the listener says is that one of these employees complained about a hostile work environment. That’s kind of a loaded term. It often has legal implications. Should that cause any alarms to go off in this manager’s head?
MELVIN SMITH: Potentially, especially if she hasn’t been intervening, and she’s been letting things occur. So I would make sure that she understands exactly what is happening, what’s prompting someone to say that it’s hostile, what types of behaviors. And again, addressing those to the extent necessary, taking proactive measures to ensure that that type of behavior doesn’t occur and is not tolerated.
DAN MCGINN: Alison, what’s our summary?
ALISON BEARD: So we think that this is a very good opportunity to coach on managing conflict with colleagues. We worry that our listener has been a little too hands-off thus far. She knew that the one employee was gruff, and she knew that the other wasn’t coming in. Now that there’s been this blow-up, she has the right instinct to start coaching and approach these employees individually first. We think she should ask how they want to be perceived, how that differs from how they are perceived, and what they can do to move from the latter to the former. She should explain that she’s on both of their sides, and she just wants to help improve the situation and that they have the power to change their behavior in a way that makes things better. She should also explain that this isn’t just a two-person problem. You know, the behaviors are affecting the whole team, so if they continue, it’s a serious performance issue. She should put on her manager’s hat, outline team norms and shared goals, and encourage these employees to fall in line.
DAN MCGINN: Great. Melvin, thanks for coming on the show.
MELVIN SMITH: Oh, thanks for having me. This was fun.
DAN MCGINN: That’s Melvin Smith. He’s a professor at the Weatherhead School, and a coauthor of the book, Helping People Change. Thanks to the listeners who wrote us with their questions. Now we want to know your question. Send us an email with your workplace challenge and how we can help. The email address is, [email protected]
ALISON BEARD: We also want to thank Louis Weeks and Nick DePrey for composing our theme music.
DAN MCGINN: We hope you liked today’s episode. And if you want to get the next one automatically, please go to your podcast app and hit, subscribe.
ALISON BEARD: And if you liked the show, please give us a five-star review.
DAN MCGINN: I’m Dan McGinn.
ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. Thanks for listening to Dear HBR:.