Turning around the hard case

How do you handle chronic mistake-makers — especially those who treat their mistakes as something to be laughed at and overlooked? How can you get such people to recognize that there is a problem they need to correct?

As a self-motivated manager, you may wonder at subordinates who don’t hold themselves to the same standards you do or even notice that there’s a problem with their work. How can a competent worker consistently underperform, as if he just doesn’t care? When nothing you’ve tried makes a difference, what do you do?

I once worked with a development team whose only quality assurance guy didn’t make test plans and hardly tested at all. The manager called him into his office several times and even threatened to fire him. Nothing changed the QA guy’s behaviour.

Then one of the coders pulled the QA guy aside and said, “Hey, I need your help. My code is due tomorrow, and if it breaks on the users one more time, I’m in deep. I can’t test it myself. Will you stay late tonight and help me out?”

The QA guy stayed late and tested. Thoroughly. The coder thanked him profusely and told him how much everybody else on the team needed him, too.

There were no more problems with that QA guy. He tested his backlog, then proactively asked his teammates if they needed anything from him.

This experience taught me that, as a manager, you can take the following steps to help a subordinate realize that a chronic problem needs his attention and develop an eagerness to fix it. (Although if the problem involves routinely missing deadlines, you may have unrealistic schedules.)

Ask for his help. Sincerely say, “I need your help.” By doing that, you’re showing the worker that he’s important and valued, which may surprise him. People like to be needed, valued and respected, and when they feel they are, it’s amazing how quickly they can change and rise to the occasion.

Explain why there’s a need to change. You may think it’s obvious why what has happened in the past can’t continue. But the person may think that what has happened is acceptable because it has happened so many times.

Even if you think he understands, show the employee how important his role is and why his work is vital to the project. Again, you may think it’s obvious. But this person may not see things as you do.

Ask for his recommendations. Remind the worker that this is his area of expertise and that he probably knows more about it than you do, and then ask, “What do you recommend we do in the future to improve this?” Your attitude is key. Show that you sincerely value the person’s input.

If the subordinate doesn’t answer, or if he evades the question, go back to the first two steps. If this person feels that no one listens to him, it may take a while to convince him you’re serious.

Create a strategy. When he gives you suggestions, keep prompting him until he comes up with a viable strategy.

Verify that there wasn’t any miscommunication. Say, “To make sure we’re both on the same page and we don’t forget anything, let’s write this down.” Write it down together — right away, not later. Agree on the steps that will be taken, when they will be taken and by whom. Now you both have a plan that he has created and agreed to. There’s no question what’s expected.

Reinforce how needed, important and trusted the person is. Even if you don’t need reinforcement and don’t understand why anyone else would, it never hurts to applaud specific efforts that you want to see more of. Show him you rely on him. Tell the worker, “I’m counting on you to make this change by the end of the quarter. Otherwise, I’m in hot water because no one else can do it.” If you want subordinates you can rely on, show them you trust and rely on them.

And remember: Hold a high image of employees in your mind that you expect them to live up to — just as you do for yourself.

Sue Young is CEO of ANDA Consulting in Williston, Vt., where she specializes in data modeling, mentoring IT managers and simplifying IT projects. Contact her at sue@andaconsulting.com.

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