What’s Toughest

Recently, I asked a question on Linkedin (at the suggestion of my lovely publicist, Nettie Hartsock): “What’s your most difficult employee challenge?” One answer that intrigued me:

“Choosing between the “stick” and the “carrot” has been a constant challenge for me. The carrot is always the first priority and a given in my company, and I use it on a daily basis. But you reach a point when you have to make a decision: use the stick (discplinary process) or more carrots (more incentives, rewards…) when previous carrots already failed – I always wonder if my expectations are set at the right level, so I usually involve my team in setting them, but there is always 1 bad seed who never agrees, is always negative… so this is a challenge.”

I think lots of managers find this tough: an employee who doesn’t really seem to respond to the carrots or the sticks. Managers tend to get “held hostage” to this kind of employee: they keep offering carrots (rewards, incentives, praise, compliments) and hope for the best. When that doesn’t work, they show the stick (note the consequences of continued poor performance), but they tend not to actually use it (follow through on the consequences), because the employee immediately starts to perform just slightly better. A certain sort of employee can continue to play this line for years, doing just enough not to get fired. The manager, especially a well-intentioned, hopeful manager, blames the situation on him or herself, and tries to figure out if some other, better combination of carrots and sticks will magically solve the problem.

To help you find your way out of situations like this, I’d like to share with you four basic behaviors I believe you can legitimately expect from every employee:

They are responsive to feedback: Sure, everybody gets defensive now and then, but overall, employees are responsible for listening to your feedback, taking it in and trying to understand and apply it.

They keep their agreements: This may seem blindingly obvious, but think about it—how many times have you said or heard someone say, “I’ve asked her to do that a dozen times, and she keeps saying she will –but then she doesn’t do it!” employees are responsible for doing what they say they’ll do.

They manage their own growth: They may need, and will probably appreciate, your help—but they know it’s their responsibility to develop, and they don’t expect you to make it happen for them.

They are good company citizens: Generally speaking, they don’t make it difficult for those around them to succeed; they’re honest, consistent and respectful in their interactions; they don’t try to accomplish their own goals at the expense of others. None of us are perfect, but employees are responsible for making sure that they’re not doing stuff that makes others dread to come to work with them!

And now, to free the hostages: If you’re managing an employee reasonably skillfully and fairly, and the employee consistently fails to fulfill these responsibilities, it’s OK to let him or her go. (If you’d like more information about this, you might want to check out Chapters 10 and 11 of Growing Great Employees.)

Posted in Leading People

About Erika Andersen

Over the past 30 years, Erika has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are custom tailored to her clients’ challenges, goals, and culture.

Visit Erika's Forbes.com Blog

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