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The Destructive Power of One

Many leaders are slow to address people on their team who are “problems.” These employees can come in many forms - low performers, negative people, folks with an inadequate skill set, etc. The most detrimental type of "problem" employee is the one who is undermining the progress of the organization either overtly or covertly. Here are five examples of such employees.

The first is a woman hired to be the head of HR for an organization. While superficially, she appeared positive and a strong advocate for the organization's direction, in reality, she was incredibly destructive. She was paranoid and controlling of everyone around her. She was the cause of her team to turn over several times. She attempted to control the CEO and drove out most of the key leaders in the organization. Numerous people raised concerns about the legal function of her behavior.

A second example is a senior-level executive hired to run a large portion of the organization. While functionally strong and intelligent, people don’t want to work with him. His behavior can be volatile, and he comes across as condescending, and untrustworthy. He believes he should be the CEO and creates subterfuge behind the scenes.

A third example is a functional expert. This individual is considered bright and could be a rising star. The challenge is that she is extremely self-focused. She pulls a great deal of organizational energy towards her. She takes actions that should be positive and twists them, taking a negative stance and becoming very reactive. She has a connection with the prior CEO and board member. Her manager is a new manager and walks on eggshells around her partly due to the employee’s attack on some of the manager’s personal decisions, which were totally positive decisions! On paper, this person is average, but she has been become emboldened in her actions because people have accommodated all the drama she creates.

A fourth individual is a part employee, part consultant. Five minutes with this individual has your eyebrows raised. He’s brash, aggressive, has incredible self-interest, limited perspective, tremendous ego, very poor people skills, no emotional intelligence, and likely in those five minutes, he has been inappropriate in some way. A few years back, he had a major transgression that should have been the catalyst to separate him from the organization. Because he was providing what was perceived as a unique service to the organization (but in reality, not so special that others could not do it), he was kept on with a few limitations placed on him. As predicted by several people at the time, his transgressions escalated, and he is now a more significant problem for the organization. Nothing had been done due to concern about how this particular work would be covered.

A fifth example is an individual contributor in an accounting function. This function has had quite a bit of attrition, and the company has been going through a major transformation. With much historical knowledge going out the door, the accounting leaders were afraid to lose her. The problem is she is caustic and consistently negative. She is polarizing, and people do not want to work with her. When the leaders try to create change, she is a vocal obstructor of progress. She’s toxic in the environment, but she has accounting knowledge and historical context that the leaders are afraid to lose.

These examples from different companies have several elements in common.

  • First, they should have been addressed right away. Employees like this are not salvageable. Some low percentages may be salvageable, but it takes highly skilled people to turn them around. Without a specific and focused investment, it is highly unlikely that a turnaround will happen.

  • They are surrounded by enablers. While folks might not be setting out to enable these behaviors, the fact of the matter is… they are.

  • Everyone is watching. These people are hard to hide in an organization, and since they think they are justified in their actions, they do quite the opposite of hiding. What messages does this send to the rest of the workforce? People like this are a big reason why others leave. Unfortunately, this collateral damage is often missed.

  • The examples focused on what was obvious and known. You can be sure there a tremendous amount is going on behind the scenes that are not known…by a factor of 10.

  • The fear of retribution is significant for many. Will they sue? Will they create a major scene for the company? Will they retaliate in some way? In the first example, some feared that the woman was so unstable that she might be a physical threat to some. Let’s think about this. If you have that level of fear about someone in your organization, do you really think the right thing to do is to leave them in your organization? It seems like insanity to me. The risk of what “might” happen is no reason to suffer the organizational consequences of what is happening. And most of those risks can be eliminated or mitigated.

So how to handle these situations? Here are some tips:

  1. Trust your gut. You are right if you observe or hear about some behavior that seems significantly off. Then, aggressively seek to understand it.

  2. Get strong on how to have tough conversations. It is a skill, like golf, that can be improved with practice.

  3. Get your Legal and HR partners involved early. We are often late having initial conversations or informally socializing ideas or concerns with these helpful partners.

  4. Document everything. Make it easy – create a Word document, and any examples or exchanges should be dropped into this document. Or send an email to yourself with notes of the encounter or incident. Be specific with the date, the people involved, and what was said or what behavior was demonstrated. Many times, action is not taken on such folks because of a lack of documentation.

  5. Go towards adversity and address it. Most people are largely conflicted avoidant. The problem is these issues generally don’t get better with time. They get worse. Develop a mindset of going towards adversity and addressing it so you can get on the other side of it.

  6. Create a transition plan. Sketch out the person’s responsibilities and put yourself in the space of…if this person quit tomorrow, what would I do? Make that assumption that it is going to happen and begin to prepare for it but what that does is enables you to be in the driver’s seat on making the decision about whether the person stays or goes.

  7. Have redundancy in your organization, so you are not held hostage by talent. If you have a small team, cross-train. Plan to develop redundancy over time. Even three months of exposing employees, in small increments, to other areas will create a safety net if you don’t have the luxury of having additional people on the team who are doing similar work.

  8. Stop trying to think you can change people. We can’t. We can provide coaching to help increase competence in some areas, but when it comes to personality, the reality is it is very difficult. I believe that you can show up completely differently tomorrow if you put your mind to something but the key to that is it has to be decided by you, not others, for it to work because it takes significant commitment for us to change.


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