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Don't Fire Difficult Employees. Try Adapting First

Before you decide to get rid of problematic employees, make an effort to turn their personal weaknesses into business strengths.
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The post "3 Types of Employees You Should Fire Immediately" by fellow Inc.com contributor Jayson Demers contains an excellent description of three types of difficult-to-manage employees.

However, while Demers's diagnosis is spot-on, I find his prescription--fire them immediately--overly simplistic and I disagree with some of his basic assumptions about sound management practice.

For example, in the first paragraph, Demers writes:

As a business owner, your time is limited; you hired a team of capable professionals because there's no way you can do it all. Even if your organization runs like a well-oiled machine, there's usually at least one team member who causes you more stress than the others.

With all due respect to Demers (who is a successful CEO himself), this way of defining management is in my opinion a recipe for micromanagement.

In my experience, the least effective bosses are those who are absolutely convinced that they know the best way to do everything and therefore see their employees as second-best proxies.

If you're a smart entrepreneur, you don't hire people because you haven't got enough time to do certain jobs; you hire people who can do those jobs better than you can do them yourself.

And then you let them do their job.

Even more dangerous, to my view, is the assumption it would be a good thing to have a start-up that "runs like a well-oiled machine."

While I realize that's just an expression, the metaphors you use to describe the working world often predefine the strategies and tactics you're willing to pursue. Seen that way, the "company as machine" metaphor can be toxic.

Machines can't adapt. Machines can't grow. Machines break down. And you can only change the function of a machine after you've shut if off. That's why "reengineering" is such a joke.

I would also argue that the "company as machine" metaphor is literally dehumanizing because it encourages management to think of employees as replaceable cogs.

I suspect that most people who elect to work for a startup are looking to express their individuality and creativity. The only time they want to be "well-oiled" is if your company offers therapeutic massage as a job perk.

Entrepreneurs shouldn't try to build a well-oiled machine. Instead, they should seek to create a community of individuals that can work together flexibly to solve surprising problems and take advantage of sudden opportunity.

In a community of individuals, there will always be some employees who require more direction (i.e. cause "more stress") than others. It's only when you think of them as cogs that such employees seem weird or out of place.

The post continues:

You may not even realize it, but these "time-suckers" hurt your business by drawing your attention away from the tasks you need to do each day. While there are many types of productivity-zappers in an office environment, none are as disruptive as those who directly impact strategic decision-makers.

There is a misconception here, I think, and it is that managing people (difficult or otherwise) is something that business owners should do in their spare time, after they've done "the tasks you need to do each day."

While startup CEOs typically have non-management tasks to accomplish, the only way that a CEO can grow personally as his or her firm grows is to gradually switch from being an individual contributor to being, well, a manager.

And that means dealing with people issues first.

Before you think about how to get ride of an underperformer, you have to think about two things first: 1) the cost/benefit of keeping the employee on the team and 2) possible ways to ameliorate the problematic behavior.

In my experience, the most talented people are often the most difficult to work with. While their behavior can sometimes be distracting, their ability to contribute is frequently worth the hassle of working around their foibles.

For example, I knew a brilliant programmer who was slightly bipolar. When he got into a funk (which happened about once a week), he became extremely negative and had a tendency to "blow up" at people.

To limit the collateral damage, his boss told him "if you're feeling depressed, either don't come in or, if it comes on when you're here, just go home." This allowed the boss to secure the benefit of the guy's intelligence while limiting the negative effect of his emotions.

Another approach is to turn apparent weaknesses into valuable strengths. Get your non-conformist working on new product designs. Send your drama queen on a public speaking promotional tour. You get the idea.

In other words, it's usually wiser to adapt your management approach to match the needs of the individual employees rather than sweeping them out the door because they don't conform to some arbitrary mechanistic standard.

This is not to say that you should tolerate any and all behavior. There will obviously be times when an employee simply isn't going to work out. Those times, however, should be few and far between, especially if you're careful when hiring.

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Last updated: Jul 30, 2014

GEOFFREY JAMES

Geoffrey James, a contributing editor for Inc.com, is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed more than a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know. If you enjoyed this post, sign up for the free weekly Sales Source newsletter.




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