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Bad employee - Main

If you’ve got a bad employee working for you, you’re not alone.

I work with lots of leaders who are struggling with this issue.

The first thing that probably jumps into your mind is that this person is a pain.

This is natural, because a bad employee can cause more work and greater stress to you and your team.

In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the perhaps not-so-obvious reasons why your bad employee is acting up or struggling.

We’re All Self-Interested, to a Degree

First, let’s get something out of the way. I believe that everyone has a degree of self-interest.

I don’t care who you are.

You could be the best leader in the world … there is some self-interest in there somewhere.

Whether it’s because you want to achieve your career goals, earn a lot of money, support your family or be of service to others, there is a layer of self-interest underneath it all.

Why? Because if people were not self-interested, they wouldn’t survive.

Even people who love helping others have self-interest.

How can that be?

Well, because when they help others, they feel good about themselves. So the pursuit of helping others is how they find their own fulfilment.

I love helping leaders, but can I do it for free all the time?

No, because I have a vested interest in earning a stable income for my survival.

What’s the Link Between the Bad Employee and Self-Interest?

The reason I think it’s important to acknowledge self-interest is because it may be the source of our natural instinctive reaction.

It’s the reason we feel annoyed, frustrated, angry or hurt when someone wrongs or inconveniences us.

I put this on the table so we can feel those emotions, know that we are simply feeling what a human feels, and then choose what to do about the situation, rather than react inappropriately.

A bad employee can make us feel like a bad leader.

Or, we may feel like the bad employee is in fact a malicious and evil person.

These thoughts and feelings are natural, but they’re not helpful.

As soon as we start blaming the bad employee, we stop thinking about how we have contributed (or can contribute) to the situation.

When that happens, we stop looking to improve, and instead, we simply say things like:

“It’s not my fault they’re useless” or

“I can’t do anything about it.”

Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #251: Dealing with people problems? Remember these things.

5 Reasons For a Bad Employee (That Might Not Seem So Obvious)

So now that we’ve got the initial reaction of “they’re stupid / lazy / incompetent / nasty” out of the way, it’s time to look deeper at the potential problem.

First, let’s keep in mind that when you’re dealing with a bad employee, all may not be what it seems.

When we see bad behaviour, for example, there are many reasons that could potentially be behind this. It’s not as easy as tackling the behaviour itself if you’re going to fix it properly. We need to find out what’s really going on.

When we see poor performance, the cause is not immediately clear either. We need to do some more work to understand the root cause in order to address it.

1. Skill Gaps

Making an error - spilt coffeeOne of the very simple reasons for your bad employee may be because they lack skills in a certain area.

A lack of skill can obviously cause poor technical performance. After all, if somebody doesn’t know how to do something, then they’ll struggle to deliver.

But sometimes instead of seeing a performance issue, you’ll see a behaviour problem.

Often a skill gap can show itself as avoidance. That is, the employee may avoid tasks they aren’t very good at.

Leaders often misinterpret this avoidance as a lack of motivation or drive. But actually, it can be a lack of skill which the employee is trying to hide.

A lack of skills can also make people feel insecure or worthless.

This can in turn lead to frustration, fear or anger as they believe they’ll be blamed for not being up to the task.

Learn More:  How to Create a Skills Matrix and Improve Your Team.

2. Lack of Motivation

A lack of motivation can show itself as poor performance. Obviously, a team member who is unmotivated is not likely to put in as much effort as they could.

But… what’s the cause of this lack of motivation?

Many leaders jump to this conclusion:

“They have no work ethic. They just want to do the bare minimum and go home.”

Well, hold on a minute. That *could* be the problem, but it’s not a guarantee.

Let’s look at some other common causes of low motivation:

  • Lack of skill. It’s our old friend, the skill gap! An employee may be hesitant to try hard, if they believe they can never succeed.
  • The wrong role. Sometimes it’s not about skills, but what people find engaging. What if your whole job involves spreadsheets when you’re not a “detail” person? Or talking to people all day when you’d rather be in a spreadsheet? It could be the role that’s not the right fit.
  • Lack of confidence. A lack of confidence can have people avoiding tasks or situations, which can be misinterpreted as not caring about the work.
  • Limited challenge. People get bored when they aren’t challenged. Then they stop trying. We think they’re unmotivated, but could they simply be looking for a greater challenge?
  • Poor conditions. It’s hard to feel motivated when we’re paid poorly or working in a chaotic or unsafe environment. These are the basics, but we need to get them right.

Learn More:  4 Types of Motivation to Look For In Your Team.

Dogs fighting - Storming3. Team Dynamics

Is your team member withdrawing, showing signs of disengagement or displaying unproductive emotions?

Could it be that the issue lies within the relationships in the team, rather than in the employee themselves?

Some people just don’t gel.

It could be an extrovert that needs to work closely with an introvert, or two people that simply have very different personal styles for other reasons.

Or perhaps there is history between team members that make it hard for them to see eye-to-eye.

Whatever the case, you might find that your bad employee’s performance may be impacted by their surroundings.

Learn More:  Introverted Leaders vs. Extroverted Leaders. Who Wins?

4. Your Leadership Approach Can Create a Bad Employee

Sometimes, our own behaviour as leaders can have a negative impact on the people we’re supposed to be serving.

Obvious examples include having too much oversight (micromanagement), providing unclear direction or failing to allocate interesting or challenging work.

We may feel like we’re being super-supportive, when some people simply need the freedom to operate without feeling like they’re being watched.

On the other end of the scale, we could be unavailable or not paying enough attention, which means our people might go off on the wrong track, or spin their wheels because they aren’t sure how to proceed.

It’s always useful to think about the influence that you have on the situation when you’re trying to help a bad employee.

Learn More:  Are you a Micromanaging Boss? Let’s Make a Change.

5. Personal Challenges

As you’ve probably noticed, many of the causes behind poor behaviour or performance are hidden from view.

Most of the time, we only see the symptom, which is the poor performance itself.

Personal challenges are often one of the hidden factors beneath the surface, and they can take many forms.

The Iceberg Sketch

From health (mental and physical) challenges, to financial stress, family issues, relationship challenges, drug and alcohol abuse … the list goes on and on.

I’ve seen great people turn into poor performers overnight because they’ve had challenges arising outside of the workplace.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader #209: How to Build Empathy Using the Iceberg Model.

Keep An Open Mind For Best Results

I suggest two things to start with, when you’re trying to tackle a bad employee:

  1. Keep an open mind; and
  2. Have a conversation.

When you’re dealing with poor behaviour or performance, you’ll probably believe you know what the issue is.

And that’s fine. It’s natural, because we like to solve problems.

But – you don’t have all the answers, and you might not be correct.

Imagine going in hard with accusations or blame, or suggesting the solution in your head.

But then, you find out something you hadn’t considered and you end up looking insensitive or aggressive.

The Open Mind Matrix Large

So don’t be the fixer. Be the listener.

Start with a conversation, rather than a performance management conversation.

Default to a conversational approach and get curious, because you open the opportunity for a positive resolution.

You never know whether they might open up, and inside your bad employee could be a unicorn.

Have you found any unexpected reasons behind poor performance or behaviour? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know abou them in the comments below!


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