I manage a fairly large group in engineering. My team has a good reputation with the rest of the company and works well together.
Except for one person.
I have one direct report that I just don’t know what to do with. “K” has always been a little bit prickly and unpredictable, but people put up with it because she is bright and creative and always brings—or rather, brought—fresh perspectives to the table.
Over the last few months though, things have gotten worse. A couple of my other employees have mentioned that they are avoiding working with her. I tried to give her feedback, but she literally got up and walked out of my office. She is rude to her team mates, and to me. I am going to have to put her on a performance plan but the fact is that I am really worried that she is having some kind of break down and I feel like I should somehow be able to help her.
Want to Help
Dear Want to Help,
When a good employee starts behaving erratically it is almost always a sign that something has gone severely sideways in their personal lives. A scary health problem for the employee or one of their loved ones, substance abuse that has gotten out of control, a deterioration in a relationship with a significant other.
If you are lucky, your employees will let you know what is going on so you can assist with connections to appropriate HR support, and helping to manage workload and workflow. But so many folks come from work environments that punish them for needing support or assistance that they might have trust issues. If the employee isn’t talking it is hard to know how to help, although I applaud your desire to.
First of all, do your homework. Start keeping a record of all incidents in which K’s actions affect the success of the team. Find out from HR what kind of assistance is available to K. So many good workers are promoted to management without any training whatsoever about what to do when an employee’s personal life affects their ability to work, so this is your opportunity to get a crash course.
Then, go at it head-on with K. You will want to express that you are committed to keeping K’s wellbeing in mind as you also try to balance that with the success of the team. Tell K that her behavior is keeping team mates away and that she is no longer adding value to the team, and that things need to change right away if she wants to avoid consequences.
Be clear about what the consequences might be – it isn’t mean, or kicking someone while they are down to share the truth of the situation. Share that your intention is to help in any way that you can, if she is willing to accept help. Share whatever information you get from HR about what kind of help might be available through your EAP, if any. Possibly offer K paid or unpaid leave so she can take the time she needs to get back on an even keel.
So many employees who are suffering in their personal lives are paralyzed by their inability to cope, or they are ashamed, or they are simply so private that it just doesn’t occur to them to tell anyone about what is going on, let alone their boss.
K may just not be able to receive help from you, no matter how kind you are or how much you try. Do your best—that is all you can do. Ultimately, your job is to do everything in your power to help your whole team succeed so you will have make decisions based on that in the long run.
About the author
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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