One of the biggest mistakes that I made while running my company Micrel for 37 years was to hang on to those employees who are extremely functional in that they produce a lot of high-quality work, but were 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 attribute such as productivity, sales and even attendance did not also take into account other key factors like attitude, collaboration, team mentality and communication. Too often, these ‘softer’ of skills were difficult to measure, but were of great importance in addition to the ‘hard’ performance metrics.
Differentiating Between 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 emergency room-worthy illness. In my role, one approach that I found successful is to literally get out of my office, out of my closest groups of advisors and visit each department and working group to understand the problems they face. I ensured every one 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 her self 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 first hand and more clearly balance results and attitude.
We’re all too aware of the acquisition cost for new talent, and in my experience, consciousness of these costs can keep the organizations from taking action. It was difficult for me to listen to complaints about who I considered to be highly productive employees that others considered to be problem team players. I would tell my employees who were having difficulty with the dysfunctional person to avoid ‘throwing out the baby with the bath” with a consciousness of the economics of replacing a new employee. I would nurture, coddle and do everything possible to work with the dysfunction.
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 that one highly-productive but dysfunctional employee be dismissed than to lose the rest of your organization or to have it 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, is 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.
Originally published in CEO magazine