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When an Employee Makes You Nuts: Three tips to change behavior


Are you working with an employee whose behavior is so frustrating that it’s triggering you grinding your teeth while you sleep? Have you threatened to “write them up” if they don’t improve? And did this threat (or actuality) lead to anything but a grudgingly compliant employee who now does just enough to avoid your wrath?

What if you could have performance conversations where employees feel motivated to change because they see the consequences of their current behavior, and the benefits of a new behavior. In this article, you’ll get an inside look at a real situation and the approach I recommended. It also contains a plot twist which altered that approach.

The Background

Laura is the financial coordinator in a medium sized practice where she’s worked for 6 years. Her performance has had some challenges and lately has gotten worse.  The dentist has been told that Laura avoids answering the phone and is cranky and uncommunicative. One employee described her as a “Negative Nancy” due to her constant complaining.

The dentist observes that Laura shunts patient inquiries to other staff.  She sighs and looks annoyed even when the dentist asks her questions.  She can be critical and dismissive. For example, at huddle, she rolls her eyes when others speak and describe patients as deadbeats who never pay or who are too irresponsible to show up.  When asked why she doesn’t get a payment before the appointment or why she reappoints chronic no-showers, Laura derails the meeting with defensiveness and arguments. 

Curious about what the dentist should do? Here’s what I advised.

Tip #1: Identify your goals for the conversation

Before you enter into a feedback conversation, identify your desired outcomes first. I asked the dentist to describe what she wanted to happen as a result of the conversation. She wants Laura to:

  1. Agree to a process of answering patient financial queries instead of deflecting all calls to someone else.
  2. Change her attitude at huddle.
  3. Be a better team player.
  4. Stop complaining about everything and help others without the attitude.

Review those goals for a moment. Do you notice a problem with how they’re phrased? The first goal is fine because it’s specific, action-oriented and can be measured. But the other goals are about attitude. Changing someone’s attitude is going to be a long, frustrating, uphill battle. Focus instead on behaviors.  Spell out what you want the employee to DO, instead of what they should STOP doing.

The dentist and I created new outcomes for their conversation.

  • Laura and the dentist will decide which calls she will respond to and which calls she can forward.
  • At huddle, Laura will use non-judgmental language when describing patients. “This patient has a history of…”
  • Laura will describe her actions to address patients’ behaviors. “Because this patient has a history of late payments, today I will ….”
  • Laura will respond to requests and questions with respectful and helpful verbal and non-verbal communication.

Tip #2 Describe how the negative behavior impacts the employee

It would be ideal to have employees who connect the success of the practice to their own growth and goals.  But some employees are more invested in their own needs and lives.

So, instead of struggling with them, meet these employees where they’re at and leverage two internal motivators that most people care about:  their reputation and their relationships. (If your employee doesn’t care about these things, then you have a bigger problem.) 

The purpose of the performance conversation is to provide feedback so that the employee realizes that their current behavior negatively impacts how they’re being perceived by their peers and by you. If they want better relationships, they will need to change. 

We developed the opening lines for the dentist’s conversation with Laura. Note how it directly links Laura’s behavior to team perceptions.

“Laura, we’re talking today because I’m concerned about how your actions and communication style are affecting your relationships with your colleagues and with me.  I suspect you might not be aware of how you’re being perceived and the damage it’s doing to your reputation. 

For example, when you roll your eyes, gossip and complain, it gives the impression that you don’t respect or like others. This leads your colleagues to believe they can’t trust or rely on you. 

When you arrive at work, bang your stuff on the table without acknowledging anyone – they get the message to stay away from you. When they ask for help and you appear annoyed, then in future they are not going to want to help you out either.

Is this truly the relationship and reputation you want to have in our practice?

Would you be open to changing how you communicate so that you can be seen as the reliable professional I know you want to be?” 

Tip #3: Document the conversation and the agreements

Every HR person will advise you to document every performance improvement conversation in case you need to defend a dismissal. Another good reason is because it creates a work plan for the employee. Before you end the conversation, outline how you will measure and evaluate the employee’s changes.  Create specific milestones and schedule your next meeting to evaluate the employee’s progress.

The Plot Twist

Nearing the end of my call with the dentist, I asked a question which created a plot twist.  I wondered why the dentist had been putting up with this for so long.  I asked, “Since Laura has worked for you for 6 years, has she always been like this?”

The dentist shared that in the last 18 months Laura’s husband was jailed for a fatal DUI. She’s now divorcing him.  Two weeks ago, Laura’s car died and she is struggling to afford another on the salary she’s receiving from the practice.

Laura’s personal life can be a major factor in explaining her behavior at work. It doesn’t make it appropriate but it does put it into a larger context. We re-scripted the dentist’s opening lines to acknowledge this. 

“Laura I am so appreciative of your work here in the last 6 years. Until recently, you’ve been reliable and dedicated. I recognize that things have changed in your personal life lately and I feel a great deal of compassion for your situation. I recognize that it can be hard to leave your personal troubles at the door and perhaps you haven’t realized how your interactions with us have impacted your relationships and reputation.

We need to talk about how to turn this around so that your colleagues and I can again rely on you. I believe that if you make some changes, you’ll be on a path to reach more of your life goals.”

This opening acknowledges Laura’s circumstances but still holds her accountable. It allows Laura to see that changing her behavior can bring her benefits.

There is an old joke about therapists and lightbulbs. It ends with: it depends if the lightbulb wants to change.  Your employees will be more likely to want to change when they perceive that a different behavior will lead to something they genuinely value.

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“As an Office Manager, I’ve seen a great difference in my practice since starting with Sharyn. Three years ago our staff was in turmoil with a lot of infighting and gossip and some jealousy directed towards me.

I had given up because everything I did was judged. Now I have learned to have more one-to-one communication and by being more vulnerable with individuals I found my leadership voice. As a team, we’re all focused on the same goals.

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