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Lessons Learned: Dealing with Problem Employees

For obvious reasons, the names and specifics will be left out, but the lesson will remain.  I was brought in to advise a product team on the right architecture and tools for their next generation product.  I met a highly competent team that had been together for a long time, to the point where it wasn’t uncommon for everyone on the team to head to dinner or to watch a game together.  It was very close knit, and management had invested heavily in everyone.


Management was also heavily invested in the future.  The current product was going to be completely revamped, and contracts were in place that required this.  So when 3 of the 7 members on the development team privately confided that the new product was a pipe dream and that they believed it would never work, you can imagine how seriously I took this!  And it wasn’t just the normal gripe: in some cases it was outright rebellion with undone work items, returning “it’s not possible” findings on relatively simple research tasks, and talking the future of the company down to even those that believed in what they were doing.  I found out about this because the positive members complained to me in confidence, saying it was really bringing them down.


My plan was pretty straightforward.  I approach everything with a high degree of transparency, so I first talked to 2 of them to see if I could get them to “get on the bus” and at least open themselves up to this.  This was a disaster.  One of the members, I’ll call him The Pessimist, flat out told me that it wasn’t going to work, and that things would be better off if they would just quit dreaming.  I talked to him about the contracts and how this wasn’t really optional for his company, and he was fairly nonchalant about it, but adamant that he wasn’t going to change, and that the sooner everyone realized this for the failure it was, the better.  The second one agreed to an attitude change, but it was obvious that this was just an attempt to be a team player, as the negativity still crept in at every possibility.


Part 2 of the plan was to go to management.  Within 2 weeks of my initial suspicions, I had informed management of just how serious this problem was.  I shared with them articles about problem employees, talked to them about possible remedies, and I found out that one of the managers went back for years with The Pessimist, and that even having a “hard” talk with The Pessimist was farther than they would be willing to go.  He was family, and they were settled just pulling his dead weight rather than having to lose a member of the family.  But as with most things in consulting, when the first attempt fails, but you know that you’re right, you try & try again.


The first strategy was to separate the 3.  They were working together a lot and forming a cluster of negativity, so we worked on finding them tasks that didn’t overlap, and that had them working with the other, more positive employees.  The third member literally turned around just on that.  Within 2 weeks, he was enjoying what he was working on and it completely turned around.  Within the month, our second grumpy employee was happy as well.  By giving people the ability to pick areas they were working on, the second employee threw himself into support of the old product.  A month in, he had gone from a 60-40 split to nearly 100% on the older product, and he loved it.  Everyone else moved their responsibilities for the previous version to him, and he kept learning more about a product he loved.   Problem #2 was solved, as long term support for the previous product was going to span years, and he was happy being “the guy” for Tier 3 support and new features for the old product.  Only Mr. Pessimist remained.


This problem was solved in the 2nd month.  I had 2 very “strong” talks with management about how a change needed to be made, and I hit the wall with them.  I was sure they would never be able to even put Mr. Pessimist on notice, let alone be able to fire him without improvement.  His productivity was down and he was still loading down the team.  And then he resigned.  Call it Deus Ex Machina, but it was based on him getting tired of working with people that didn’t share his same beliefs.  He simply packed up his ball and went home.  Now this left a particularly bad taste in my mouth at the time.  Not because it wasn’t good for the team that he left, but that I had failed to give management the “proof” they needed to make a change.  I’ve since learned that people make bad decisions for bad reasons all the time, and that you’re not going to win every battle.  But the good news is that the team replaced Mr. Pessimist with another good contributor, and within 18 months the new software was released.  The contracts were satisfied and everyone was happy.


Best of all, management talked to me and said that they now “got it” with regards to the problem employees.  They admitted to knowing it was wrong, but they hadn’t really seen “how wrong” it was until the change was made.  But they had learned the lesson now, and understood what team dynamics meant.  In retrospect, I likely should have come up with some mechanism to isolate Mr. Pessimist outside of the team for a couple of weeks, either an offsite, or training, or some “deep project” that he could do at home.  That likely would have been enough to show the difference in attitudes and productivity when he returned, but hindsight is always 20-20!  Again, you can’t win them all, but it’s fun to try.

Published Friday, January 13, 2012 8:12 PM by Brandon.McMillon


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