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Change and the Troublesome Employee, part 3


In part 1, we met Jerry, a production employee who seemed like a troublesome employee, but with compassion, conversation and time, was able to engage, catch up, and contribute positively to the continuous improvement (CI) movement at his company. In part 2, we met Nancy, a woman who struggled to accept change because she lacked self-esteem. That brings us to Part 3.

(Side note: Somehow I skipped part 3 and already published part 4... my mistake!)

Meet Brian. Brian is a sales rep. He has been mildly successful as a sales person. Out of the dozen sales reps at the company, Brian is in the bottom three for overall sales results. He usually gets close to his sales target, by virtue of a few long-term clients, but has under performed by more than 30% some years.

The company changed the expectations for sales reps about four years ago. Changes in the marketplace forced a shift in their corporate strategy, which translated into a change of sales strategy. The shift in strategy meant some re-tooling and re-focusing of the sales force, as well as a change in how success was measured. The company knew it would take some time for the changes to become familiar and normal, so they put everyone on a multi-year ramp-up plan. They even hired a sales coach to help.

One of the new expectations is sales activity. A phone system was installed to track outgoing and incoming calls. On a good day, Brian makes about 1/3 of the calls he is expected to make. On a bad day, he may make less than 10%.  Brian commonly has the lowest sales activity scores of all the reps. Call logs show little attention or focus on developing his newest territory. Most calls are to current or past clients, people with whom Brian is familiar.

Brian is one of two reps who have resisted the changes. Each has his own rationale. Brian insists that the new measures are a form of micro-management, and ultimately a way to force people out. Brian does not believe anyone can legitimately do what the new job requirements are asking. He insists that other reps who are meeting the sales activity goals are faking it -- as in, making fake calls to show higher call volume. It may be true. But for those reps, the improvement in their sales results suggests otherwise. Those reps who have made an effort to transition have experienced consistent growth in their sales volume and an increase in new clients. 

Brian is running out of ramp up time.

Brian spends a lot of time repeating the reasons why the activity requirements are unreasonable and unnecessary. He defends his excuses to whomever will listen. Brian has short bursts of increased activity, often followed by an increase in actual sales results, but those bursts are short-lived. While other reps have created new routines, Brian complains that sticking to a routine is oppressive. He sees the new expectations as an over reach of his manager's authority. He has convinced himself that he shouldn't have to make the changes being requested, that his manager is against him, and that he should be able to do the job how he wants to do it, regardless of expectations.

Rather than embrace the changes and commit, Brian chooses to keep doing what he has always done. He is convinced that total sales will always win over sales activity, even if he never grows his territories beyond current customers.

What do you do with a troublesome employee like Brian? What do you do with the employee who is getting okay results in one aspect of their role, but refusing to adhere to performance standards or requirements in other areas?

This is a difficult case. At what point do you hold the line around performance standards? Is that line firm? Is it based on research or data? Or is it made up -- even arbitrary? Is it a stretch goal? How is the employee's performance rewarded? Are rewards in alignment with requirements? How consistent have you been in enforcing standards across all employees?

Employee's like Brian provide an opportunity to look for gaps in organizational alignment, in your own management style -- even in your own character. For example, a manager who struggles with follow through will meet resistance when he demands strict follow-through from others. I remember a client situation where safety was a problem. The employees were praised by supervisors for speed, not safety. Supervisor meetings focused on getting product out the door. Safety was discussed only when there was an accident reported. It should be no surprise that safety suffered. 

Brian is a "gap-window." It takes courage and humility to step back and look through that window -- to consider the "problem" from a different perspective.

As a young manager I had an employee like Brian.  She was on my ERP training development team.  She was a good employee for the most part, but consistently failed to complete important goals on time.  I assumed it was an attitude problem and I wanted to fire her.  My manager asked me to consider what I was doing to create the performance problem.  At first I was defensive.  But my manager insisted I give it serious consideration.  She was right; there were things I could change -- gaps in my character I needed to address.  As I improved, my relationship with the employee improved -- and so did her performance. 

Brian and his manager were able to find some compromise and have a solid go-forward plan that meets business requirements and alleviates some of Brian's concerns. To find common ground, both had to be willing to acknowledge gaps in their approach.  Brian is getting needed support as he learns to surrender to structure; his manager is learning to be more direct and consistent in his management approach.

It is possible that your troublesome employee is choosing to be troublesome.  But it is worth considering how you've created what you've got -- or how you are reinforcing the troublesome behavior before you head down a termination path.

What are your troublesome employees trying to show you?

Leading Change: Brownies, Boulevard Trees and an O...
Change and the Troublesome Employee, part 4

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Tuesday, 02 June 2020