Strategies for Nurturing Challenging Employees

WOC speaker Randy Anderson explored how to identify challenging crew members and set them on a path to improvement.

Katy Tomasulo

January 23, 2024

5 Min Read
Marjorie Kamys Cotera/Bob Daemmrich Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s no secret that labor is one of the industry’s biggest challenges—and the packed audience for Randy Anderson’s employee-relations session on the first day of the World of Concrete only supported that notion.

Anderson’s workshop, “Difficult Accountability: Confronting Lovable Underperformers and Landmine Employees,” explored how supervisors and business owners can better manage challenging crew members, whether that means nurturing them, reassigning them, or even firing them.

Identifying Challenging Employees

“If you have underperformers, just fire them,” joked Anderson, owner of E3 Professional Trainers. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could just do that?”

He noted that is, in fact, what some managers do.

But simply firing every employee who causes you difficulty isn’t practical.

“Anyone can fire somebody,” Anderson countered to his earlier jest. “But it takes a leader to grow somebody. It takes a leader to take somebody and make them successful.”

The first step is recognizing who your challenging employees are and why. Anderson addressed two common-but-opposing types: An employee who everyone loves but who doesn’t get the job done, and an employee who is a jerk but delivers on productivity and quality. In both cases, other team members say you should fire them but then get mad when you do (for different reasons).

How to Deal With Challenging Employees

It’s not easy dealing with either of these two types of people, Anderson was quick to admit.

But one thing is certain: Waiting longer to deal with problem employees won’t help.

First, you have to determine when you draw a line in the sand, Anderson explained. One line would be when the employee’s productivity no longer outweighs their negative influence on the work atmosphere.

Another example is if they keep ending up in your office because people (under them or over them) are complaining. And a third line would be that you’re having to manage “around” them, such as worrying how they will react to a meeting or a directive and subsequently stir things up among their coworkers.

Once you’ve drawn the line in the sand, you have to determine how to deal with the employee. You could ignore them—give them an ultimatum and hope they get the message. You could protect them and tell your own manager that they’re doing better even if they’re not. But ideally, you will be able to nurture and develop them.

Some employees won’t be teachable. Perhaps they are defiant to your efforts, are unconcerned about their own development, or simply regress when they aren’t getting your focused attention. These team members likely won’t be worth your effort.

Strategies for Nurturing a Challenging Employee

For those employees who approach coaching with a positive outlook and recognize the opportunity to develop and improve, nurturing can become the ticket to improvement for both of you.

Here are some steps to take:

Diagnose the issue. You can’t fire someone for not being a good fit. You need to identify the real, measurable issues.

For example, a hapless underperformer can be measured in the number of missed deadlines, rework due to poor quality, failure to meet goals, etc. The defiant insubordinate can be recorded in how often they push back on directives, in measurable lack of efficiency, in tardiness, in poor communication, in non-compliance with PPE rules, etc. The team bully may perform well, but may be abusing subordinates, peers, or even you. It shows in how they go around things, who they talk to, and how they stir up negativity.

Consider peripheral elements. When weighing an employee’s less-than-ideal performance, ask yourself: Do they have the tools they need (e.g., software, training, an understanding of how safety equipment works)? Do they have the team/support they need? Are good systems/processes in place to accommodate your changing dynamics as the company grows? Do they have the training they need?

Have them identify what’s wrong. It’s important to have a frank discussion and determine if they know what they’re doing wrong. “I want them to tell me what they’re not good at,” Anderson explained. “Then we can identify the self-awareness gaps.” People have blind spots about what they’re not good at, but learning and recognizing it can be important to their growth if they embrace the opportunity.

Determine why they are missing the mark. If an employee is unaware that they are lacking—whether in work or in attitude—that means there’s not enough communication from their manager. Were the expectations clear? Were they fair and reasonable? Did their responsibilities or supervision change? You can’t measure them against a goal that was not given or that was moved.

Have constructive accountability conversations. Meetings about performance can naturally get emotional. So, start by talking about actual behavior: “Here’s what you did.” Then compare it to expectation: “Here’s what you did; here’s what I expected you to do.” All you want to do is talk about that gap. Ask them if they agree there is a gap and are they willing to try to get better.

During this process, you may uncover challenges the employee is facing that you might not be aware of. For example, maybe they are late to work every day because they are having a childcare issue. Or maybe they simply don’t realize that five minutes late every day adds up to a whopping 20 hours of missed work over a 48-week work year.

Create an action plan. Finally, create a plan that is actionable, not idealistic. Specifically, what needs to be accomplished. And set actionable goals (e.g., “lose weight” vs. “cut down on the number of beers you drink”).

Stating the results you expect is more important than giving them your own methodology, because we often have different approaches to the same successful result.

Set expectations—the what, the why, and the when. Then lay out what the rewards/consequences will be.

Finally comes accountability—having conversations and checking in. Even if they’re not improving, you can still talk about it and outline what’s working and what isn’t.

Don’t Wait to Address Challenging Employees

Anderson ended his session with a couple of key reminders:

• Be diligent in addressing underperformance.

• Manage in segments—i.e., not a year at a time but a week, a month, or a quarter.

• Try to catch them doing something good and recognize the accomplishments of the small steps along the way.

It’s not a question of whether you’re going to have problems this time next year, Anderson explained. The question is are you going to be dealing with the same problems you are today and with the same people?

Get more tips and resources from Randy Anderson’s blog.

About the Author(s)

Katy Tomasulo

Katy Tomasulo is an accomplished writer, editor and public relations pro who has worked in the construction industry for two decades. She writes about residential and commercial building products and materials and construction trends.

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