The Subordinate Who Is Never Wrong

Tips to Deal with Difficult Employees

He says it, often: “Of course I admit when I’m wrong-but I’m never wrong.” Even if he doesn’t say it, that’s his feeling. Generally, his brag-gadocio is a cover-up because he has a hard time holding on to his self-confidence. He may have been over-criticized or over-praised in childhood.

 Consider these steps in your general dealings with him:

  1. Let him know it’s no crime to make mistakes.
  2. Avoid unnecessary criticism.
  3. When criticism is in order, don’t criticize him but the method he used.
  4. Build his self-respect by appropriate praise when he does an outstanding job; then he will have less need for a phony defensive shield.

The Overly Dependent Individual

He or she is thought of as a clinging vine. The strange fact is that often he is a capable individual, and he clings not because he needs help, but because he needs reassurance. It takes time to get the unsure or overly cautious employee to stand on his own feet. But if you want him off yours-

1. Go light on the criticism. It isn’t so much that you have to pull your punches. It’s just that a small amount will have a strong impact. Usually he overreacts, magnifies a correction into a major dressing down.

2. Watch him for signs of trouble. If he does get into a tight spot that he can’t handle, be ready to assist as soon as possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you take over. When he gets into deep water, the best help you may give him is to help him figure his own way out.

3. Keep feeding the ball back to him. When he comes to you for help prematurely, without trying to cope on his own, help him see that he does have the answer: “How do you think we should handle it?”

4. Can you consult him? To reinforce his own self-confidence, let him participate, where appropriate, in discussions of problems and so on, and from time to time consult him on decisions you have to make when you can use his help.

When he’s too popular

Social lions are great in the living room, but hell on the work scene. Occasionally, the executive is confronted by the problem of dealing with an overly popular subordinate. What with phone calls, visits by friends from other departments, there’s a constant social merry-go-round. Usual result: performance goes down as his disturbance rating goes up. To exercise some reasonable control:

  1. Check your own performance first. If you are extending special privileges—such as long or excessive number of personal calls, you may have to change the signals and make him live up to the same rules as others do.
  2. Avoid a frontal attack. Direct criticism of his misplaced social activity might leave you open to the charge that you are “butting into my personal affairs.”
  3. Focus on his job performance. It is appropriate for you to call the turn if his activities affect the work. These points apply:

Disturbance with the work of others. Even if they don’t complain, your observation is enough to bring action—and warning.

Slapdash work, to make up for lost time. This gives you an opening to discuss the quality of his work and the need to perform up to standard.

Low-quantity level. Be specific in discussing his below-standard performance. Refer to a recent job in which he ran short of expected goals.

The Alcoholic

Of all the problem employees you may be called on to deal with, an alcoholic will be most difficult. According to Dr. J. J. Walsh, Medical Director of Union Carbide, “Some of our best employees are alcoholics.” And it’s heartbreaking for the executive to see an individual of outstanding ability victimized by an addiction that destroys him both as a functioning employee and as a human being. One of the reasons that makes alcoholism so difficult to deal with is that two things tend to hide the problem:

Alcoholics tend to become extremely ingenious in covering up.

Social drinking is an accepted aspect of our society, and it isn’t easy to make a clear separation between the social drinker and the one who is a victim of the bottle. When you are faced by a suspected case of alcoholism, it is the height of wisdom to think through your actions, if any. To clarify some of the aspects of the problem, consider the following information and insights developed by medical and psychological experts.

A booklet, The Alcoholic Employee, put out by Alcoholics Anonymous, states that there is general agreement on these basic facts-
  1. There is a distinction between the heavy drinker and the alcoholic. While the former may overindulge on occasion, he does not let alcohol disturb the pattern of his living or obscure his objectives.
  2. Once a person crosses the invisible borderline between social drinking and compulsive drinking, he is never going to be able to drink normally again. A single drink may be enough to start the alcoholic on his merry-go-round. Alcoholism may be arrested, but it can never be cured.
  3. The only way for an alcoholic to cope successfully with his unique problem is to abstain completely from even the smallest quantity of alcohol in any form. Alcoholism, a pamphlet issued by the U. S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, suggests indications of alcoholism: “One of the more obvious early signs of a pre-disposition to alcoholism is that the individual drinks more than is customary among his associates and makes excuses to drink more often.

This is an indication that he is developing an insistent need—or a psychological dependence—on alcohol to help him escape from unpleasant worries or tensions.

He becomes filled with discouragement and self-pity and tries to ‘drown his troubles’ in more liquor. But his drinking has passed beyond the point where he can use it as a way of coping with his problems, and he is faced with the disease of alcoholism.” To act constructively when dealing with an alcoholic employee consider these guidelines:

1. Don’t act until there is work interference.

While this point applies to problem employees in general, it has particular cogency in relation to a heavy drinker.

2. Develop a realistic view if he has an off-the-job drinking problem.

Occasionally, an executive is contacted by a wife or other member of an employee’s family with the information that his drinking is a problem at home. As much as you might like to help, it is unwise to do so in your professional capacity. Any moves you make could justifiably bring the accusation from the employee that you are meddling in his personal affairs. This point must be made clear to the relative, even while you are conveying your interest and sympathy.

3. Avoid moral judgments.

The least effective and most damaging action a superior may take is to criticize an employee’s drinking. The perfectly commonsense statement, “You have just got to stop drinking. You’re ruining your health and your career,” will be completely useless. This point is clarified when you-

4. Understand the psychology of the alcoholic.

There’s no point in telling an alcoholic that he is ruining himself for one of two reasons. One is that he won’t believe you, no matter what the circumstances are. The other, deeper reason, is that often he is drinking for precisely that reason. It’s because drinking is in some cases a form of slow suicide that the individual is an alcoholic.

He seeks self-obliteration in a limited way, just as the suicide seeks the ultimate permanent form. Some authorities feel that alcoholism is physiological, that is in its later stages the body develops a need for alcohol that must be satisfied in the same way a starving man must have food. This concept explains why the strongest arguments become meaningless to the alcoholic. He almost never has sufficient will-power to stop simply by wanting to.

5. Make your approach nonthreatening.

The most effective thing you can do when you approach the subject with the individual is to do so on a nonaccusatory basis. You may not be able to get him to stop drinking. You may be able to persuade him to take some action that may help. If you can, make a specific suggestion. You may want to suggest that he see the company doctor or psychiatrist, or other agency that you know about. The Alcoholics Anonymous groups have a good record of rehabilitation. But perhaps the employee will refuse to accept your recommendation that he seek help from any source that is so easily identified, since he may not be willing to see himself as an alcoholic.

For this reason, the visit to a doctor or psychologist may be a more practical suggestion from you. Nevertheless, it’s helpful to know that most large communities have alcoholism information centers operated by volunteers affiliated with the National Council on Alcoholism. These centers provide information about the problem, have resources for limited support or counseling, and can make referrals to doctors, psychologists, clergymen, family agencies, and hospitals in the community.

Most large companies have sufficient experience with the problem of alcoholism to have both a policy and a tested procedure for dealing with the problem. It would be wise for you to check with your superior or appropriate person in Personnel to get their recommendations in dealing with this type of problem individual.

Emotional First Aid

It can be an upsetting experience: one of your subordinates displays emotional disturbance. It may either be a fit of crying, a prolonged or intense display of anger, a low mood verging on depression. The following approach is based on suggestions made by the professional staff of BFS Psychologist Associates of New York City. Of course, you don’t want to play amateur psychologist. If the behavior displayed is extreme, what’s called for is immediate medical assistance. However, if the emotional storm is within normal limits—such as reasonably justifiable anger or tears, there are steps that you can take to help matters. What you do will vary, depending on the nature of the problem.

1. In case of crying or other similar behavior:
  • Show your serious concern to the individual. Make clear your desire to help.
  • Take her to a private place, your office for example, as unobtrusively as possible.
  • Give the employee a moment or two to compose herself. Avoid exerting pressure, to make it clear that you’re not annoyed by the situation.
  • Ask, “What’s wrong?” If the employee doesn’t wish to respond, however, don’t press the point. e. Ask, “How can I help?”
  • When the tears have subsided, give the employee the choice of returning to work or leaving early, if it’s in the afternoon. g. If the employee explains what’s wrong, listen; offer sympathy. If it’s a complicated or highly personal matter, don’t prescribe. You may want to suggest that she seek professional guidance.
2. For an outburst of anger:
  • Face the individual firmly and assert your authority.
  • Show a strong mien. Be firm without showing anger. Make clear your intention to have things cool down before any action is taken.
  • Isolate him by taking him off to a corner or separate room.
  • If you don’t know, ask the reason for his upset.
  • Listen to his complaint. Generally this will help calm him down.
  • Be prepared to deal with his shame or sheepishness. Usually, there’s a revulsion of feeling in which the individual is sorry for his display of temper. Alleviate this feeling by assuring him that it’s “just one of those things.”
  • If he needs counseling or guidance, suggest that he see a professional person. Preferably, don’t use the phrase, “See a psychiatrist,” or anything similar. This suggests that you’ve made a diagnosis of abnormal behavior, which probably will be resented.
3. In case of despondency:
  • Approach the individual and show your concern.
  • Isolate the individual.
  • Ask for the reason for his feelings. If this confidence is re-fused, don’t press the point.
  • Show your friendliness and desire to help.
  • If the individual begins to cry, don’t interfere. Weeping in this case might be a desirable alleviant.
  • If the upset suggest serious causes, recommend that the individual seek professional help or guidance. If your company has a medical department, leave it up to the nurse or doctor to refer the employee to proper channels. In all cases where there may be some kind of reaction from other people, talk to them to make sure that they keep their curiosity under wraps. As far as others are concerned, try to smooth over the situation as quickly as possible to help bring things back to normal.

The Careless Employee

“The employee was careless.” The statement is often used to explain an error or accident on the work scene. But seasoned executives know the “carelessness” designation is a coverup, rather than a diagnosis. The trouble with attributing mistakes or mishaps to carelessness is that it automatically puts the problem out of bounds. It is practically impossible to cope with carelessness—as such.

Experts of the Institute of Scrap Iron & Steel have analyzed “carelessness.” They found it to be a catchall term, covering many forms of failures. Through their analysis, they revealed that many of the specific faults that hide behind the carelessness designation can be dealt with. Here is the list of possible employee faults disguised by the term “carelessness”:

  • Firstly he didn’t follow rules and regulations.
  • Secondly he didn’t use safe work methods.
  • Next he didn’t follow standard procedures.
  • Subsequently he didn’t pay attention to what he was doing.
  • Then he didn’t foresee an action or movement.
  • Also, he didn’t wear personal protection equipment.
  • And he didn’t think ahead and plan his actions.
  • He didn’t follow instructions
  • Then, he didn’t consider the consequences of his own actions or the action of a machine or equipment. He didn’t know his own physical capabilities or limitations.

The value of the list is that, unlike “carelessness,” most of the items suggest remedies. For example, the man who “doesn’t follow instructions” can be asked why he didn’t. Weren’t they clear? Any development interferes with following the original orders? Could he have prevented the failure by informing you of unexpected changes? And so on.

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