Can You Make a Bad Employee (or Boss) Better?

Last Updated Feb 16, 2011 7:23 AM EST

Dear Evil HR Lady,
Do good managers really have the ability to fix bad employees? In my experience, the only person I have the power to change is myself. This happens to be the same person I least want to change.
I don't know about you, but I have awesome powers to change other people. Well, one other person and he's 2.5 and really should be getting close to being potty trained, at which point I'll lose that influence.

Other than that, I totally agree with you. What we want to do is have others change rather than change ourselves, which is the hard thing to do. If everyone else would just conform to my wishes, think how much better everyone's lives would be?

So, no you can't change other people. But what you can do is change what they are reacting too and change the rewards structure that they receive. Now by rewards I don't necessarily mean actual dollars. I mean rewards in every sense, including praise or criticism. Consequences might be a better term. Adjust those and you can have a tremendous influence over someone.

I learned this lesson from an elementary school teacher with 30 plus years of experience managing 11 year olds. When a certain boy never managed to get to school on time she asked his mother if there were extenuating circumstances that made the boy late. The mother replied that the boy walked to school and would leave in plenty of time for school every day, but was easily distracted and ended up taking way too long to get to school.

Now, this teacher could have lectured the boy on the importance of being in school on time. She could have enlisted his parents to provide punishment at home when he was late to school. Instead, she just announced to the class that in preparation for a big test, she would give one question straight off the test along with the answer first thing in the morning. The class was forbidden from sharing the question or answer with anyone who wasn't there.

Guess who was never late again?

This boy valued good grades so she changed his rewards structure so that he was motivated to change his own behavior.

You can do this with just about any bad behavior. (Some are definitely easier than others and some bad behaviors are just so inappropriate or destructive that it's better to just talk to the employee and tell them to either fix it or head out the door.) Here are some key points.
  • Identify what behavior you want to fix. You would think this would be the easy part, but it's not necessarily. Sometimes people just bug you or have so many faults that it's hard to decide what needs fixing the most. Don't attempt to fix every problem a person has at once. One thing at a time.
  • Identify what motivates the person. It's probably not money. (And even if it was money, most of us can't just increase our direct reports' salaries, let alone our coworkers or managers, who are also in need of changing.) Some people respond to praise, special assignments, criticism, help with an odious task, public attention, or a clean and tidy work environment.
  • Change your behavior to reflect their motivation structures. Here are three examples
    • Chronic whiner that is also an attention hog? When she's whining, just ignore her. Pretend you can't hear her through your ear phones. Be overly engrossed in your spreadsheet. When she's not whining, make sure she's the center of attention.
    • Micro-managing boss that wants to feel important? Ask her questions and inquire about what she would do before she asks you what you're doing. She'll begin to feel that you value her opinion. And more importantly, she knows you'll come to her, so once you get her used to the idea that you'll come to her with every little problem that she so likes to control, slowly cut back on how often you ask for advice. If you're slow and careful about this, she won't even notice that she's no longer hovering over you and you're no longer asking advice on every little thing.
    • Procrastinating employee that wants a promotion? Give him a mix of extremely visible assignments that he knows will help him earn that promotion and regular tasks. Give early deadlines. Follow up casually, "How's it coming on [boring regular project]?" When the answer is that he plans to get to it soon, just say, without judgment or condemnation. "Oh, no problem. I'll just put [arch rival] on the [big important project], so you're not overburdened." And then do. Don't give into the whining or promises that he'll start on it right now. Just reiterate that you understand he's too busy so arch rival will have to fill in.
Each person is different had has different motivating factors. A kid that didn't care about his grades wouldn't be motivated by getting a test question first thing in the morning, but there is something that motivates all of us. Figure out what motivates your challenge (be it boss, coworker or direct report) and your changes can cause big changes in that person.

For further reading
Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.
Photo by MissMessie, Flickr cc 2.0

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