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Ever notice how there are those “bad eggs” on your team who, like vacuums, seem to suck not only your energy, but everyone’s energy?

Learning to deal with the “bad eggs” on our teams can feel like a trap.  It’s easy to think that with just a little more coaching or care, this player will become more self-sufficient, and then soon “a little more” has turned into A LOT MORE, and you find yourself feeling frustrated, embittered, and exhausted.

It’s time to start thinking about this scenario differently: to correlate the best use of your time with the best employee outcomes, you need a sports coach mindset. First, we’ll get a bit more specific about how to develop the right mindset to lead your team, and then I’ll share 3 key steps that will help you to build talent and confront your own fears about dealing with conflict.

Getting your head in the game

Most of us have at least some experience watching a high performance sports team in action, but how much attention have you paid to what the coaching staff is doing while the players are working on their win?

From what I have seen, the best coaches offer encouragement and minimal direction from the sidelines – they trust their players’ abilities and skills.  Occasionally, they’ll call “time-outs” during key strategic moments in the game where they will talk with their players.  They discuss positioning – who will play where – and they share their observations, predict what rivals might do, and then they turn the players loose to execute the game strategy they discussed.

As a manager, when you see employees like players on a high performing sports team, your awareness will turn to the players who will move your team to more wins AND who will help raise the caliber of your entire team.  This mindset involves 3 key steps:

  1. Build up your team by acting like a professional coach
  2. Use regular one-on-one meetings to upskill and determine competency levels
  3. Figure out why you could be avoiding dealing with poor performers

Step #1: Start acting like a professional coach for a winning team

A great sports coach builds the team and ensures everyone is working together and using their strengths. If you haven’t done that step, then there is no point in targeting specifics because there won’t be a foundation into which individual accomplishments can fit.

Team training requires exercises, soliciting team feedback, setting up game plans and making adjustments, motivational talks, challenges and side coaching. As you put these coach strategies into place, you will start to notice that people fall into three different categories.

***Before you start getting upset that categorizing people is stereotyping, know that these categories are fluid: employees can move up and down the categories and will if you are doing your team coaching properly. Of course, if they move down, it is a danger signal and requires intervention.

***AND before you start saying that you won’t get your work done if you spend time coaching and building up your team, remember that if you are in a management position, building a high performing team IS your job. Everything else is secondary because you make money for the company if you have a top notch team and you lose money if you have a poorly performing team.

Kim Seeling Smith says employees are like neapolitan ice cream – three flavours in one (I’m putting this one in because if you don’t identify with the sports metaphor, ice cream should do the trick!). She labels her employee flavours as:

  1. Critical – vanilla
  2. Squeaky – strawberry
  3. Middle – chocolate

Critical (or essential) people are vanilla: the most important but ignored flavour. Vanilla helps the others to stand out more clearly. You may not notice that they are excellent performers because they don’t cause you any grief. Vanillas may have the best customer relationships, be the best team players or make the most sales but they are largely ignored by employers who think that because they aren’t complaining, everything is fine.

Ignoring your critical people is like ignoring the best players on your sports team – seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? Just as a star player would eventually leave the team, neglected vanillas will also leave of their own accord or they will be headhunted by someone who sees their talent. Further, when a vanilla leaves, they may take your business with them (even though you thought it was “yours”) because, without them, your customers don’t want to come back.

Squeaky wheels are the strawberry – the people who constantly need supervision and make lots of mistakes or cause a lot of grief to other staff members, making you “see red.” Strawberries are low performers who don’t seem to realize they are such a pain to others. Most employers spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to educate and retrain these employees – I’ll explain why later – but the result always ends up as a money leak. It’s easy to see how things can go from “bad” to “demoralizing” when others notice that poor performers are rewarded with more attention and training while good performers receive little notice or recognition.

The majority middle are the most popular flavour: chocolate. The truth is that 60-70% of your workforce (our chocolates) will end up doing their jobs really well if the top performers are allowed to work at their best and the squeaky wheels aren’t interfering with their productivity. Their value increases and they will perform better as you do your usual team coaching work and as they see the top performers being occasionally rewarded for excellence.

So, once you figure out who your top people are, show them some appreciation, a bit of flexibility and the occasional random reward. This will help motivate the people who should be playing the game, and you’ll elevate your team’s performance.  For those who should be “on the bench” – the strawberries who just suck energy out of the company and don’t give anything back – you’ll need to find a way to cut them from the team or keep them away from everyone else to mitigate the damage and the time you waste on them.

Step #2: Use one-on-one meetings to keep up morale and manage problems

You can avoid most of your bad employee problems if you are in the habit of doing regular one-on-one meetings with your employees. If the employee is new, meet weekly, and if they aren’t, monthly meetings will work.  Regardless of how long employees have been with the company, let them know that these meetings are an important time to talk about any issues they are having so that the two of you can develop a proactive solution to solve the problem.

One caution here: don’t use regular one-on-one meetings to discipline people. Use them to have employees explain to you what they are doing, give you feedback and talk to you about their own goals and struggles. Meetings can be anywhere from 15-30 minutes for the lower or mid-level performers and up to an hour for the top performers.

There is lots of guidance on doing good one-on-one’s so I’ll get you started with a few resources:

Step #3: Uncover why you may avoid dealing with low performers and address your own issues about this

Why do managers avoid getting to the root of the issue with poor performers? Most reasons can be categorized in 4 ways:

Reason #1: Fear of conflict

This is possibly the most common reason why managers, or people generally, put off dealing with people who are causing problems – very few will seek out the unpleasant emotions that often accompany these interactions.

If this is the case for you, consider that you are in charge of your emotions. You can acknowledge that you find it distasteful to deal with conflict and then proceed to deal with it anyway. Be the boss of you.

Reason #2: Fear of losing control

This fear often accompanies a fear of conflict, but it goes a bit deeper.  Here, a person is concerned that they may not be able to control the circumstance effectively, or that a dangerous situation may develop where their own safety could be compromised. To solve this, plan out the meeting with key points on paper that you want to cover. Ask a colleague to be in the meeting as a witness. Work with a coach to help you strategize which questions you should ask to get the outcome you seek.  Have an emergency plan with key people to jump in at a moment’s notice if you suspect danger. And ask yourself how you ended up with a dangerous employee in the first place; usually this is a poor hiring process issue.

Reason #3: Misunderstanding how human beings are motivated and why they perform

Maybe you are not dealing with this because you are confusing education, motivation and performance. Education results in a change of behaviour, if it is done properly, and changed behaviour should lead to improved performance. Employees who are most motivated to put their education into practice have inner drive to do the job well, and this internal motivation is not affected by external sources, however elaborate or well intentioned they may be.  More bluntly, no education plan won’t motivate people who don’t want to do the work. BUT it will motivate people who want to do the work better. So choosing employees from the outset because they want to do the job will be the best way to solve this problem.  Scrutinize your hiring and promotion practices to ensure you find the right fit.

Reason #4: Fear of loss of reputation

The  final reason many managers avoid dealing with a difficult employees is because they don’t want to lose face or mar their reputation as being “nice” people. They continuously make excuses for the employee because they fear rejection. If this is you, ask yourself why you care about being rejected by someone who clearly doesn’t care about the job or the company. Think about the 30% rise in productivity you will see just by cutting this underperforming employee from the team. And if you still can’t get your courage up, get HR, another manager or a colleague to work with you to deal with the situation. Come up with a plan and use the other person as your accountability partner. You will grow as manager and the job will be done.

The winning strategy

We started with a cleaning analogy, then turned to sports, and even touched on ice cream to help you understand one essential understanding: when a bad egg is involved, things cannot continue “business as usual.” And, while you can’t control how that “strawberry” team player behaves, you can control how you will handle the situation.

So, go through the 3-step game plan we laid out above:

  1. Start acting like a professional coach for a winning team
  2. Use one-on-one meetings to keep up morale and manage problems
  3. Uncover why you may avoid dealing with low performers and address your own issues about this

As you start to shift your mindset, find opportunities to reward your top performers and let their influence pass through the rest of your team players.

Get in touch with your results…I’m excited to hear about your wins!

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About Marie:

Marie Gervais, PhD, CEO Shift Management is a business-to-business entrepreneur who specializes in helping employers train their middle management to lead, get their workplace learning online and interactive, and conduct team assessments to figure out who to promote and how. She has a background in integrating internationally-trained individuals to the workplace and has supported many businesses in their efforts to hire, retain, support and promote immigrant and diverse employees.

Get in touch – she would love to hear from you: marie@shiftworkplace.com or 780-454-5661