Share with:

    How to Motivate Even the Most Unruly Employee

    Anne Loehr and Jezra Kaye

    Career Press, 2011 


    This easy-to-read toolbox belongs on every manager’s shelf. Management consultants Anne Loehr and Jezra Kaye provide creative, effective ways to transform unmanageable employees into helpful team members. The first half of the book contains the authors’ expert, insightful advice. The second half contains case studies – including some that feel sort of contrived – that Loehr and Kaye provide to illustrate their suggestions. getAbstract recommends their realistic advice, clear layout and step-by-step approach to those who must manage challenging employees.



    • Give even your most unmanageable workers an opportunity to change for the better.
    • Unmanageable employees include people who complain, gossip, make excuses, clown around, slack off, or don’t show up, plus those who are rude, egotistical, or intrusive.
    • You don’t have to like an employee to help improve his or her performance. Never become personal or reactive when speaking to an employee about changing.
    • Each worker is unique and requires a personalized modification plan.
    • Your staffers will be more willing to improve if they feel that you support them.
    • Ask unmanageable workers “what, where and how” questions – but never “why” questions – to learn what motivates their behavior.
    • Hold face-to-face meetings with your difficult employee whenever emotions run high, the risk of misunderstanding is great or the news you must share is unpleasant.
    • Set clear, personalized goals, and get buy-in on those goals from your staff members.
    • Don’t fire anyone during the first discussion about his or her performance.
    • Speak to each generation of workers using phrases that resonate with them.


    Unmanageable Employees

    An employee who creates problems can cost a manager 30% of his or her efficiency.

    Since you could be the one who gets sabotaged, look for these signs that a worker may become impossible to manage:

    • Reduced interest – If an employee says, “I’m just not into it anymore” or “This job isn’t what I expected,” his or her interest is waning.
    • Undefined expectations– If a disconnect between a manager and an employee is creating a problem, you might hear the worker say, “I have no idea what she wants!” or “It’s impossible to satisfy him.”
    • Low self-esteem– Workers who lack self-confidence can become defensive. Listen out for, “I don’t know why they thought I could do this!”
    • Problems at home– Personal issues steal employee focus. Consider interceding if you hear an employee say, “I just can’t seem to concentrate.”

    Unmanageable Archetypes

    Unmanageable employees (UEs) tend to fall into certain archetypes:

    • “The Excuse-Maker” never accepts blame.
    • “The Grumbler” makes negative comments.
    • “The Egomaniac” can’t work with others.
    • “The Loose Cannon” gives unsolicited advice and complains.
    • “The Joker” doesn’t take problems seriously.
    • “The Do-Gooder” takes care of others, but neglects his or her own work.
    • “The Wallflower” shies away from responsibility.
    • “The Gossip” creates disharmony.
    • “The Slacker” does little work.
    • “The Rude-Nik” insults everyone.
    • “The AWOL (absent without leave)” shows up late or not at all, and rarely completes work on time.

    “People find it easier to change when they know that the person who’s pushing for change cares about them.”

    “The 5 C’s” You can rehabilitate most unruly employees in five steps:

    1. “Commit or quit”– Is it financially feasible to keep this worker, or would starting over with a new hire be better? You must commit to problem workers if you want them to accept your help. People change if they believe you feel positively about them.
    2. “Communicate” – Speak honestly with your UE. Answer 10 questions to prepare for your initial meeting: What is the issue? What caused it? How has it affected the UE’s actions? What impact have the UE’s actions had on your work group? What solutions have you already tried? Did the UE react positively? When can you talk to the UE? What do you most need to convey? What queries do you have for the UE? How can you tell if your discussion achieves the effect you seek? Agree on communication guidelines, such as confidentiality, before the two of you talk.
    3. “Clarify goals and roles”– Your employees believe they know their roles in your firm and what you expect of them, but they might be wrong. Clearly define the goals you want the firm and its team members to achieve. Secure employee buy-in. Communicate goals that focus on outcomes, have a clear purpose, provide value for your workers, and are “SMART (specific, measureable, agreed-upon, relevant, and time-based).”
    4. “Coach” – Guide unmanageable employees to help them find their own solutions. To bring about an attitude change, ask the UE a series of “coaching questions” that do not blame or advise. Provide your employees with the training or resources they require.
    5. “Create accountability”– Identify the areas for which your staffer is responsible. Monitor the changes he or she promises to make. Explain the details. For instance, if you want a report, state the length of the report and what it should cover. Give an exact deadline, and describe the circumstances of delivery. The more details you provide, the easier it will be for your worker to complete the task to your satisfaction.

    Case Study: Jenny, the Excuse-Maker

    Jenny, an excuse-maker, doesn’t accept responsibility for any mistake. She used to be a wonderful accounting employee, but a month ago, something changed. Jenny blamed a customer for her own error, blamed a co-worker for misinformation she provided to a client, and blamed the computer system for a problem she created that cost the firm $1,000. The final provocation came when she was scheduled to give a presentation but arrived more than an hour late and acted as if she had done nothing wrong.

    “You don’t have to like an unmanageable employee in order to help him turn around. All you need to care about is his performance, and the rest will follow.”

    To deal with a Jenny, stay calm, and “keep your behavior beyond reproach and under control.” Consider her worth to your firm. Balance that against your estimate of the time you’ve wasted on her issues and the cost of the damage she caused. Add up every moment you spend talking with her or about her. How much would it cost to rehabilitate her or replace her? Either commit to her rehabilitation, or call it quits and let her go.

    “Although there are truly unmanageable employees – people who delight in causing trouble, cheating the system, and creating pain, dysfunction and chaos – it’s unlikely that your UE is one of them.”

    If your worker says, “You blame me for everything. It’s not fair!” respond, “How can we fairly evaluate the situation?” If he or she says, “If other people were doing their jobs, I wouldn’t be having trouble doing mine,” answer, “What’s the impact of someone not pulling their weight on a team?” If he or she says, “I suppose you never did anything wrong?” reply, “I’ve made plenty of mistakes. And this conversation is about your current performance, so let’s go back to that.”

    “A radical shift in behavior may be your first indication that a good employee is morphing into a UE.”

    Case Study: Bella, the Do-Gooder Bella is an upper-level project manager. She brings snacks to the office and pays her co-workers a lot of great compliments. She helps everyone but neglects her own work. Her boss, Jeremy, loves her team spirit but wants her to finish her work before helping others. She isn’t unmanageable, but her incomplete work puts extra pressure on everyone else.

    “There’s a world of difference between someone who’s acting unmanageable and someone who can’t act any other way.”

    Jeremy ran through the 5 C’s to help Bella “restore some balance” to her workday. He assessed her value and devoted the next six months to helping her improve. He assumed that a talk with her would go smoothly, but he was wrong. Bella quickly dismissed every issue he raised. “I like to work with people who are happy, so I take the time to help them feel that way,” she said. Jeremy persisted and finally persuaded Bella that her do-gooder behavior was undermining her effectiveness in her work as a project manager.

    “Do not make yourself the bad guy in a dismissal. Make sure that it’s clear this was an organizational decision.”

    Next, Jeremy clarified Bella’s formal and informal roles as a manager and as a team cheerleader. To help her see that her work was unbalanced, he used the “Balance Tool.” He drew a picture of a child’s seesaw, with one end up and the other on the ground. He explained that if Bella put too much time (or weight) into one of her roles, she would neglect the other. Her new goal was to find a balance. This helped Bella identify the relationship between her two functions, but she was still unwilling to change. Jeremy asked her to suggest another resolution. She said she didn’t want to continue in her job as manager. She preferred to work with people and wanted a position in HR. Jeremy moved Bella to a low-level HR job, which proved to be a win-win solution.

    “Your UE wants to be liked and admired by her peers, whether she admits that openly or not.”

    If your unmanageable employee says, “Why can’t I do what I want to do in my free time?” you might reply, “How would that help the team move forward?” If someone complains about being unappreciated, respond, “What contributions would you like to be more recognized for?” If your UE says, “I’m fulfilling my job description. Why do you suddenly want more?” answer with, “What exactly is your job description?”

    Case Study: Andrew, the Loose Cannon

    An investment company recruited Andrew, a financial superstar, to create a fund to assist fledgling African businesses. He worked on the project for a year and enlisted the support of “A-list celebrity donors.” Andrew travelled repeatedly to Africa and developed a roster of deserving African companies whose leaders waited for funding. A few months prior to the start of the project, the firm’s leadership cancelled it. Andrew was in shock. He didn’t understand their decision, and voiced his disappointment loudly and often.

    “A salvaged UE will likely go back to his comfort zone of unmanageable behavior when…under stress.”

    Cheryl, Andrew’s manager, held a face-to-face meeting with him. Such meetings take longer than less personal methods but work best in a tense, high-stakes situation when the “potential for misunderstanding or offense is great,” and when you need to share uncomfortable information. Cheryl began with a sincere apology. She “explained her mistakes” in planning and accepted responsibility for the company’s actions without blaming anyone. Cheryl discussed a new role the company wanted Andrew to play. His dialogue with Cheryl gave Andrew an opportunity to discharge his disappointment, talk about the change and begin to accept the idea. If your superstar becomes a loose cannon, communicate openly and honestly, especially if you expect big changes.

    Conflict Resolution

    If you have to settle a dispute, use these tools:

    • The trade-off tool”– Make a list of your “behavioral conflict” areas. Quickly write down how you believe the employee should have behaved, compared to how he or she actually acted. Together, brainstorm about how to narrow the gap between your respective expectations.
    • “The perception gap tool” – Analyze the difference between the messages you say and how others receive them. Help unruly workers understand how their co-workers interpret what they say. Both you and your employee can consider whether you convey the meaning you intend. Ask, “Am I describing what I’ve observed? Would I be inclined to listen if someone said these things to me?”
    • The “verbal progress report” – To help a UE achieve a goal, recognize how he or she is doing and offer a direct, “specific, objective, and matter-of-fact” appraisal. Praise and acknowledgement are very different. “Praise is general; acknowledgement is specific.” Don’t praise by saying, “People loved your presentation today.” Instead, acknowledge the staffer’s exact effort by saying, “I heard that your graphics in today’s presentation were clear and compelling.”

    Fire Gracefully

    Before you fire someone, try six months of intervention using the 5 C’s. If nothing improves, dismiss your problem worker. Review your company’s guidelines and contact your HR department. Keep track of “all relevant facts, dates and incidents.” Communicate regularly and transparently with the unmanageable worker.

    “Most of us are more trusting of answers that we discover for ourselves.”

    Never fire anyone during the first discussion of his or her negative behavior. When you let your worker go, keep the conversation private. Be honest and to the point. Be kind; numerous stressors may have brought your worker to this moment. Say, “Due to all the reasons we’ve discussed, this is the decision that’s been made.” If you feel the employee could react in a violent or threatening way, anticipate the worst response – keep security nearby. Once you have fired a potentially unstable employee, have security escort him or her from the premises.

    Manage Different Generations Distinctively

    Modern workplaces employ people from different generational groups. You can help these staff members coalesce into a unit. To understand the generations in your office, use their terminology and consider their attitudes and orientations:

    • Baby Boomers – People born between 1946 and 1964 believe that everything is possible. They focus on building their careers and have little free time. With this group, use these terms: “Make a difference, consensus, team/we, save time,” and “features and benefits.”
    • Gen Xers– Those born between 1965 and 1980 grew up with the recession, the Gulf War, Watergate and the Challenger  During their childhoods, divorce rates escalated. Many were “latchkey kids” or attended “after-school daycare.” They have little confidence in leadership or in the traditional family structure. They like specific dates and numbers. Use these phrases: “best, finest, world-class” and “independent.”
    • “Gen Yers”– Those born between 1981 and 2000 are comfortable with complex technology and “believe in instant gratification.” They are worldly Internet surfers. They grew up feeling special because they were “protected by bike helmets, car seats [and] seat-belt laws.” They yearn to be part of a community and crave balance. Use these phrases: “global citizen, balance, diversity, community” and “connections.”

    About the Authors

    Anne Loehr’s insights into building “global and generationally diverse teams” appeared in Newsweek and on CNN. As president of Speak Up for Success, Jezra Kaye teaches business leaders how to communicate.


    Leave a Comment