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Ask these 8 questions to get difficult employees back on track

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Difficult behavior runs the gamut — some of it intentional, some of it not. But it all has this one thing in common: You want to get the employee back on track.

And most managers have to deal with it much more than they’d like.

“You’ve probably tried to help those employees before,” said Kevin Pitts, a leadership coach and moderator when he spoke at an American Management Association conference. “Now it’s time to get them to take responsibility for the fix.”

It’s critical for both employees and their bosses to move toward accountability. 84% of employees say the way leaders behave is the most important factor influencing accountability at work. Yet, just 15% of leaders successfully define and broadly communicate it, according to the Partners In Leadership Workplace Accountability Study.

Back on track with a one-on-one

Skip the public beratement. That’ll only lead to defensiveness and create resentment. Not to mention, other employees will feel uncomfortable and likely become disengaged.

Instead, move to a one-on-one meeting — whether it needs to happen immediately or you schedule it to happen soon.

When you sit down, quickly identify the specific issue that’s causing problems. Give examples of the exact behavior, when it happened and how it affects other employees, customers or operations.

Once you lay out the situation, ask difficult employees these questions to guide that conversation, reduce defensiveness and move the situation in the right direction.

1. Can you tell me what’s going on?

This allows employees to tell their side of the story without putting them on the defense. The question shows you understand that there might be bigger issues they need to share.

In some cases, they may be waiting for someone to notice there’s an issue and they have a need for help. They were just reluctant to ask for it.

2. How is that impacting you?

Now they can open up about how it makes them feel and how it might affect their work quality, productivity, relationships and morale.

Bottom line: The problem may not just be impacting you, other employees or operations. And you both need to find out the total reach.

3. Who else might be impacted?

Difficult employees often don’t see how their behavior affects other people. They only see themselves as a victim.

With this question, you encourage them to recognize that their actions have negative effects on others.

4. If nothing happens, what are the implications?

This prompts the employee to recognize the consequences of continuing the behavior.

You might have to help them see or understand the disciplinary issues or career consequences that come if they keep it up.

5. What’s your role in this situation?

Now they need to take some – if not all – responsibility for what’s going on.

They might point some fingers to colleagues and circumstances, so you’ll want to continue to probe with a similar question such as:

  • And how did you help create that relationship with Ruth?
  • How did you help create the incomplete report? or
  • What happened when you didn’t respond to the inquiry?

6. What is the ideal outcome?

This is meant to prompt the employee to admit to something that needs to be improved. It could be a 180-degree change in behavior or a slight shift in attitude.

Now’s when you can suggest or work together on a plan to change or improve.

7. When this is resolved, what difference will it have made?

This will help difficult employees set the final goal – for example, on-time arrival, less arguing with colleagues, accurate reports, etc.

Most importantly they should identify their positive impact on individual and team performance.

Confirm that you’re on the same page about the:

  • issue
  • steps to resolve it, and
  • consequences if the behavior isn’t changed.

8. When should I follow up?

You want to make them accountable for following the action steps you’ve laid out in a time frame that works for both of you.

Set a date and time on both of your schedules before ending the meeting.

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