Making Problem Workers Productive

At one time or another, we as kitchen and bath firm managers have all had to work with "difficult" employees. Our challenge is to help make these employees as productive as possible.

A friend of mine once said that, "You can turn around the performance of almost any problem employee." In my opinion, virtually everyone wants to succeed at his or her job. When shortcomings or problems arise, they can almost always be resolved with some coaching or with a positive, but frank, discussion, of the issues at hand.
In any situation, as part of the manager-employee relationship, the potential for a clash of motivations, fears, competencies and communication styles is always present. This can lead to major problems for your company.

When there's a disagreement with a "difficult" employee, the impact can'be felt throughout the company. If the difficult employee ignores your direction, it can make it tough for you to ensure continued productivity and good morale if the disagreement spreads to other employees. This is especially true if other employees see you as the problem.

It's important to understand that when dealing with difficult employees, you need to take control of the situation. You can be proactive'by learning techniques to head'off these situations before they become disasters. Such techniques include learning results-oriented communication skills such as listening proactively, asking open-ended questions and matching your words with your body language. These skills will enable you to persuade difficult employees to buy into your goals and objectives.

Common problems
What follows are some typical problems associated with "difficult" employees, as well as some suggestions for handling them:

  • Lack of Skills. First, you must determine if it really is a lack of skills that's affecting the employee's productivity. Make sure it isn't lack of concentration or sloppiness that's the problem. These are easily corrected. If the problem is skill-related, you must decide if there's anything you or the company can do to correct it. Would more training help? Could a co-worker help? Would a seminar, book or instructional software help improve things?

    You'll have to decide at some point if these employees are really "keepers" once they've been exposed to all this help and training. If the answer is "no," you'll have to either find them another job or terminate their employment. Tough decisions, but necessary.
  • Slow Pace. A slow work pace can be one of the most difficult problems to resolve unless you have performance standards or goals against which you can make comparisons. Goals of this nature are easier to establish for sales personnel than they are for support people (quoting, pricing, bookkeeping, reception, etc.). The key'
    to correcting slow work flow is to establish specific measurable goals, and make these clear to employees.
  • Sloppiness. This is a common workplace problem. Sloppiness means the employee knows how'
    to do the job, but consistently makes mistakes anyway. Sloppiness most quickly surfaces in clerical-type work, but it happens to all of us. It's how often, and to what degree, it occurs that can lead to problems. Mistakes in pricing, shipping, product numbers and the like, for instance, can prove very costly.

    If it's a recurring problem with the same employee, you have an obligation to sit down with him or her, spell out the problem (with specific examples) and recite ways that it can be corrected. You may want to oversee the employee's work more closely until the problem is corrected. As in all situations like this, document, document, document!

    Think positively! As long as the employee has the basic skills to perform his or her job, sloppiness can be overcome in almost every case. It will just take energy, time and patience on your part.
  • Difficult to Manage. These employees can make life miserable for you. Your job is to try and determine what's making these employees act the way they're acting. Often, there's some issue (maybe work-related, maybe personal) that's making them act in a way that is "difficult." Find a relaxed, quiet way (lunch, a walk, a closed-door meeting) of trying to find out what's bugging them. If it's a personal problem and something you can help with for example, time off to be with a sick spouse, child or parent make'
    it happen!

    However, if the problem persists, have a formal, closed-door meeting, and discuss both the problem and possible solutions. Be forthright, open, honest and fair. Again, don't forget to document!
  • Tardiness. Many good, hardworking people have a tendency to be habitually late. You have to decide how important this is.

    If most employees do get to work on time and another is habitually late, it can have a demoralizing effect on everyone, and even prove infectious. The good news is that, usually, tardiness will disappear after a gentle talk. Try this approach.

As in most situations, good communication is necessary when dealing with difficult employees.

The first step in this process is simply to observe. Communication is a two-way process that involves sending and receiving signals. Good communicators learn to receive signals so they can be proactive rather than reactive. Read body language, voice tone, statements and silences.

Remember to ask open-ended questions. Your goal, after all, is to get enough information to resolve problems. A "yes/ no" question will only give you a "yes/no" answer. A question that begins with "why" tends to put people on the defensive. "Who," "what," "where" and "how" questions involve others. This takes practice.

Good communication, similarly, involves listening intently, while avoiding solving others' problems. Often, employees simply want to be heard. Once people feel heard, they'll entrust you with more information, which is what you want.

Lastly, remember to match your words with your body language. If you're honest, your body language will confirm it. Be sure your words match your non-verbal gestures or you won't be taken seriously.

You will have "difficult" employees working with you,'or for you, at some point in your career. Your challenge as a manager is to identify what the problem is, develop a solution, communicate and implement the solution then sit back and watch morale and productivity increase.