One of the biggest mistakes that I made while running my company, Micrel, for 37 years was to hang on to problem employees – those who were extremely functional in producing a lot of high-quality work, but dysfunctional in the way in which they interfaced with others. 

Why is the Dysfunctional Employee So Hard to Spot?

I would observe these employees to be very productive and professional in my presence. Important performance attributes such as productivity, sales and even attendance did not take into account other key factors like attitude, collaboration, team mentality and communication. Too often, these “softer” skills were difficult to measure, but were of great importance in addition to the “hard” performance metrics.

Differentiating Beteen Transient Symptoms and Authentic Diseases

This distinction can be particularly difficult for the high-growth entrepreneurial CEO or leadership team. If the leaders pay attention to every signal within every part of the organization, treating each as equally important, each bad signal looks like an illness worthy of the emergency room. In my role, one approach that I found successful was to literally get out of my office, away from my closest group of advisors, and to visit each department and working group to understand the problems they faced. I ensured that everyone spoke up, not just the vocal majority. In these personal interactions, I was able to determine through body language if stressors were real or potentially elevated, if situations were temporary or more prolonged. This direct contact and personal communication created a culture of honesty. The public nature of the communication also exhibited the ways that employees chose to raise issues. Were they solution-oriented, or was there a tendency to blame? Was it clear that an employee considered him or herself as part of a collective team, or was there an “I’m in it for me” orientation? By taking myself out of my executive position, I was able to experience these attitudes firsthand and more clearly balance results and attitude.

Taking Action

We’re all too aware of the acquisition cost for new talent, and in my experience, consciousness of these costs can keep organizations from taking action. It was difficult for me to listen to complaints about people whom I considered to be highly productive employees, while others considered them to be problematic as team players. I would tell my employees who were having difficulty with the dysfunctional person to avoid “throwing out the baby with the bath water.” Concerned with the economics of replacing a new employee, I would nurture, coddle, and do everything possible to work with the dysfunctional person.

That said, it’s important to proactively determine when the effort did not deliver on a return and be willing to make a break. The old adage came to mind, "One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.”  As productive as these employees might have been, they were a detriment to the organization.  It is often better for one highly-productive but dysfunctional employee to be dismissed than to lose the rest of your organization or to have it become less productive on the whole.

Suggestions for the (Hopefully Functional) Tough Love Discussions

Be utterly honest and transparent. Provide specific examples about how the employee’s attitude impacts the wider team. Be prepared to repeat the importance of the softer skills, particularly as the employee may become defensive and point to his or her results.

If you experience the following responses, be prepared to immediately move on. Definite warning sings of an ongoing attitude issue: Defensiveness. Blame. Finger-pointing. Thank the employee for his or her service, offer to assist (if willing) in job transition and make it clear it’s not a fit.

Determine if the behavior is a one-time instance and representative of “place and time.” Is the company experiencing intense growth? Has the person been recently promoted? Is the company going through a period of rapid change? These factors can stretch even the most accomplished of employees, so keeping in close touch during these times can help you feel confident about the authenticity of the employee’s leadership.

If there's one lesson I have learned that I need to remember and pass on, it’s that it is better to sacrifice this highly productive yet dysfunctional employee in order to have a more productive overall functioning organization. The short-term pain is far lesser than the longer-term systemic tension. Your functional employees will be thankful for the transition and be free to continue to do great work.


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