Dealing with a Problem Employee

Question: I have a problem employee who suffers from what I like to call “delusions of grandeur.” She is a top performer, does great work and is probably the most productive member on her team. The problem is not in her work but in how she interacts with others. She is brash and bossy and will do just about anything to get her way in meetings. Her assertive behavior oversteps into outright aggression at times to the point where no one wants her on their team or project.
Her immediate supervisor, who reports to me, has repeatedly given her corrective feedback on her behavior but nothing changes. He has basically given up and is asking me to deal with her. What is the best approach for me to take with her? Is it a good idea for me to step in and try to fix this?

Alice Waagen says: You really have two problems to solve. One, the problem employee (let’s call her Sally), the other her supervisor (let’s call him Fred) who is doing a poor job of managing her. Your instincts are right you should not deal directly with this problem person. Under her current delusion of grandeur condition, she will see this as a de facto promotion over her supervisor. You need to counsel Fred on coaching Sally into better workplace behaviors. Here is a short fly-by on how you can do this:

  1. Meet with Fred and tell him that he needs to immediately begin regular coaching sessions with Sally that occur at least once every two weeks (or even once a week) to raise her awareness of unacceptable behaviors and to set a plan to reduce or eliminate those behaviors from her interactions with others.
  2. Prior to the first session with Sally, Fred needs to document at least three instances of unacceptable behavior, the context in which he witnessed the behavior and its effect on others. For example, “Sally, in last week’s staff meeting (context) you sighed loudly and looked at your watch (behavior) when Jim was speaking. Later Jim told me that he felt that you were being critical of the time he was taking in his presentation. He asked that I not have him present to the team again but just submit a written report. Not only did your behavior damage your relationship with Jim, it has made him want to stop contributing to the team effort (effect).”
  3. When Fred presents this feedback to Sally in the first meeting, he needs to listen to her side and watch for signs of resistance and denial. His firm message should be that the result of the coaching is non-negotiable, Sally needs to stop the negative behavior immediately. They then need to discuss how she will make this happen.
  4. Fred needs to repeat these sessions as frequently as needed until Sally adjusts her behavior to what is acceptable to the team. Sticky point: if she does not want to change, she needs to leave – she is just not a good fit for this group’s culture. Are you and Fred willing to let her go if she does not change? If not, don’t start the process. Tell someone their behavior is unacceptable and then let them do it anyway and you will make it worse, not better.

You need to meet with Fred regularly and coach him on how to coach Sally. If you pull this off, you get a two-fer, a better employee and a stronger supervisor.