Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

Dealing with a Problem Employee? 3 Questions to Ask Yourself

A logo with "the muse" in white text.

If you are a manager, you have a problem child. You know who I’m talking about—she makes you roll your eyes when someone asks how work is going. You should just fire her already. You could get so much more done if she wasn’t there. Right?

Wrong. When you’re a manager, your job is about getting to solutions. That means you’re responsible not only for getting things done and making your company or department a success, but for making everyone around you a success, too.

And the truth is, even with a problem employee, there’s more that’s in your control than you might think. Yes, maybe the answer in the end is firing someone, but before you go that route, take a look in the mirror and ask yourself these three questions.

1. Are You Incentivizing Correctly?

Everyone has something that makes her tick. In the workplace, it could be money, fame, ownership, free time, learning new skills, or just about anything else. And being a good manager means reading those around you and figuring out what motivates them. If someone’s performance isn’t up to par, it could be because she’s not being incentivized by something that she cares about.

Here’s an example. Perhaps the employee in question is younger than her peers. At first glance, she’s confrontational—always trying to have the last word and spending more time on tasks you didn’t assign than those you did.

Chances are, she’s just after some respect. And letting her know how to earn your respect—accomplishing the job she’s been asked to do—and that you’re counting on her above anyone else to do it, will mean the world. Much more than, say, telling her she’s done a good job. Usually, your employees don’t even know what motivates them—it’s your job to figure it out.

2. Are You Speaking The Right Language?

Communicating expectations is personally a huge challenge of mine. The problem is, everyone speaks a different language. Some learn by reading instructions repeatedly. Some do better in a conversation. Some want to know the whole picture, and others just need the very first task.

But, as a manager, it’s your job to speak in all of those languages, or at least communicate your goals in a way that makes sense to everyone. Accomplishing this requires some trial and error, but if the job isn’t getting completed to your liking, try a new way of instruction. I often test this by trying to get those I’ve assigned a task to repeat it back to me. Don’t be patronizing about it—just try a simple, “Does that makes sense?” and see if they’re communicating your vision.

3. Have You Proven There’s a Purpose?

Like most people, I always want to know why I’m doing what I’m doing—doing work just for the sake of doing is a waste of time. So, it’s up to you as the boss to make it clear that the work at hand—whether big or small—is meaningful.

For example, if your employee’s task is placing orders for products, chances are, she feels like it’s just busy work. But her work (and her attitude) would likely improve if she knows she’s helping you grow the business. Find a way to show her that her role is contributing to a greater goal. While you may know why you asked for something, your employees might need a little reminder.

Above all else, with a problem employee, you need to communicate with her—but employing a little humility and taking some of the responsibility when you have that conversation can be powerful. Many managers think that problems are everyone else’s fault, but the truth is, making some changes of your own can have a rippling effect for those around you. With a few changes on both your parts, you might just find your next superstar employee.

Photo of woman at work courtesy of Shutterstock.