Dealing with Difficult People Part Two: Mind the Gap!

Last month we showed that the initial stage of dealing with a difficult person was to first encourage the individual to acknowledge his or her own behaviour; then they can move towards taking full responsibility for changing it. This month we explore how, by using a structured three-step approach, ownership and commitment can be passed from the manager to the difficult employee.

John Whitmore once wrote:

“When I want to, I perform better than when I have to. I want to for me, I have to for you.”

It was always a central theme in Whitmore’s work that telling someone where they are going wrong only had a limited effect on a person’s motivation. Much better, Whitmore opined, that they should tell themselves and therefore be motivated by the sense of ownership such responsibility would engender.

But creating this sense of ownership when someone has demonstrated a lack of it is a very difficult thing to do. So, if you have a meeting with someone about their lack of workplace effectiveness, make sure that you’ve given some serious thought to what you are about to do.

Conduct or Capability?

Sit back in your chair and carefully consider whether it is conduct or capability that you are dealing with. Are you mixing up the two? Have you isolated the key behaviour you wish to change?

Before you even get into any meeting with the employee, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Describe the behaviour. What is its impact on you?
  2. What are your reactions to the behaviour?
  3. By intervening, what do you hope to accomplish? Is that realistic?
  4. If you do intervene, what reactions might you expect? How will you handle them?
  5. What personal pitfalls will you need to avoid? How?

Concentrating on the ‘Gap’

Whether it is conduct or capability, you’ll still have a performance gap: a shortfall between what you expect and what the employee is giving you. This gap becomes the nub upon which the whole intervention will turn.

The favoured approach is to break the meeting into three distinct stages, not moving to a later stage until the previous one has been fully dealt with.

Stage 1: Agree that there is a gap

You first have to encourage your employee to acknowledge that a gap in performance exists. At this stage you must:

  • Agree the facts on standards
  • Agree the facts on performance
  • Agree the gap between the two

Stage 2: Identify the reasons for gap

This is the stage where a manager must be very careful. Might we have unwittingly contributed to the underperformance we identified during the previous stage? Have we trained them fully? Did we clearly set out our expectations on behaviour when they joined? In short, check through the following with the employee:

  • Were the required standards of performance made clear?
  • Were they provided with enough help or training to help them meet the standards?
  • Does the individual choose not to work within the required framework?
  • Is there a personal problem or grievance that is affecting their performance?

Stage 3: Close the gap

Once the underlying reasons have been identified, comes the time to do something about them. This is where the employee has to detail to you what their intentions are, and to agree how they are going to achieve the change. It’s imperative that they say what they will do: it must be their solution to their problem. So make sure you encourage them to:

  • Focus on the facts
  • Look to the future

Of course you may well want to agree a target and fix a review date, just so that they know your intention is to monitor the situation closely until the performance gap has been eliminated.

A Final Word…

Handling the performance of a difficult person can be a daunting task and you should think carefully about your actions every step of the way.

Let’s be honest: you wouldn’t want your manager calling you in and using the above technique on you because you have become a difficult person for them?

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