by Larry Johnson
In the last issue of “Tips For Today’s Managers,” I discussed a question submitted to me following a webinar I had presented. The title of the webinar was “Difficult Employees: How to Turn Them Around or Turn Them Out.” I subsequently received an e-mail from Mike Murray, who is a speaker/consultant colleague of mine from Austin, TX. I also consider him a friend and role model. Here’s what Mike had to say:
“Larry: thanks for the most recent article on political correctness and performance feedback. Just one small thought: I find it NOT helpful to think of another person as a “difficult employee”. The reason is that it leads to thinking of them as “problem employees,” and the subconscious hears “problem” and wants to “attack it and eliminate it…You may as well call the person ‘my enemy.'”
Mike went on to say that the solution to the problem this employee is having is probably going to require some kind of collaboration between two of you – and he’s more likely to collaborate if he’s treated as a collaborator rather than as a problem or enemy.
Mike’s comments remind me why I value his opinion so much. He always directs attention to the bigger picture.
If you’ve managed people for very long, you’ve probably run into someone you’ve considered to be “difficult.” I know I have.
And it is easy to see them as enemies. But the fact is, they probably don’t wake up every morning planning to do harm to you or your organization the way an enemy would. They’re probably trying to do the best they can, given their abilities and their perceptions of the situation. Or, they know they’re not performing as they should but don’t know how to change. Or, they’ve decided that they’ve gotten a raw deal from you or the organization, so they’re trying to even the score.
Now I’m not saying that they’re right. But if that’s the way they feel, that’s the way they feel. And, as Mike implies, treating them as if they are honorable people, who want to do their best raises the odds they will collaborate with you to correct the problem, then why not?
This reminds me of the classic study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, which they described in their book, “Pygmalion in the Classroom” (Rinehart and Winston, 1968.) In the study, they administered an IQ test to grade school children that was supposed to predict which students would intellectually “bloom” in the coming year. The results of the test were turned over to the teachers, along with the names of the “bloomers.”
During the following school year, Rosenthal and Jacobson noticed that the teachers spent more time interacting with the “bloomers.” What the teachers weren’t told was that when the researchers created the report, the actual test scores were ignored. Instead, the “bloomers” were randomly assigned, so the only difference between the “bloomers” and the other children was in the teachers’ minds.
At the end of the year, the students were retested. Those labeled as “bloomers” gained an average of 12 IQ points compared to a gain of 8 points for the unlabeled group. (source: http://members.aol.com/svennord/ed/labeling.htm)
In other words, when we think someone has potential, we treat him or her differently. They, in turn, are more likely to respond positively. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. When we treat people as losers, they tend to behave accordingly.
Now, I’m not saying that you should not confront unacceptable employee behavior. Not doing so does a disservice to you, your organization, and most of all, to the employee. If he’s doing something he shouldn’t, or he’s performing at less than an acceptable level, and you don’t say something, how will he know that a change is needed?
On the other hand, as Mike pointed out, if you view him as a “problem,” or as the “enemy,” he will probably lower himself to your expectations and become one. So the next time you conduct one of those tough chats with a non-performer or with a person who’s causing you grief, remind yourself about the good things he has to offer. Let him know you have the highest expectations that he will collaborate with you to resolve the problem.
Maybe HE will then become one of YOUR “bloomers.”
(If, like Mike, you have some thoughts or questions about this issue, I’d love to hear them via e-mail.)