Employees on the Edge

“Leadership is solving problems.
The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems
is the day you have stopped leading them.
They have either lost confidence that you can help or
concluded you do not care.
Either case is a failure of leadership.”
Colin Powell


What do jaguars and people have in common?  Well, not much normally but there is an instance where a jaguar’s plight illustrates a potential leadership blind spot.  In the children’s book
“Pat the Great Cat” , a jaguar named Pat living in Belize was faced with a dilemma.  People began to encroach on his habitat.  He began killing cattle instead of his regular prey and people wanted him gone.  Captured and taken to a sanctuary, Pat became unable to return to the wild.  

Because of the efforts of local school children and children in the United States, Pat was eventually transported to a new home in the U.S. and his true story tells of the issues facing jaguars in the wild.  The moral of the story; Pat got a new lease on life with help.  There is a telling statement made in the book told from Pat’s perspective.  Pat tells his readers, “I wasn’t a problem jaguar; I was a jaguar with a problem.  There’s a difference”.

Now, imagine Lee the employee.  Normally a solid worker, the quality of his work of late has declined noticeably and his attendance has suffered.  He has also lashed out at coworkers from time to time.  Left without some attention from management, Lee’s performance and attitude may continue to decline.  He could be viewed as a problem employee.  But, what if Lee is an employee who just has a problem?

Care Enough to Confront

Employers have a responsibility to maintain a viable workplace.  That requires assuring customers are satisfied with their product or service and hiring and managing employees well so they perform at or above expectations and are content (*note – content, not happy; we are all responsible for our own happiness).   Employees are only human, flawed and susceptible to stress.  Not everyone is free of vices.  From time to time it’s difficult to separate work and home. 

When issues arise with an employee it is important to intervene quickly.  Small problems need not become big ones but rest assured they can if they go unaddressed.  Managers should be prepared and willing to confront.  Poor attendance, spotty quality and uncooperativeness should be addressed as soon as they are apparent.   If they are not, those issues that could be remedied quickly can become chronic ones.  Sometimes those issues may be symptoms of problems outside the workplace.

Salvage Operation

When an employee is having difficulties in the workplace sometimes a manger’s first inclination is negative.  Often, employees just need support not discipline.  When an employee’s performance or behavior is actionable it helps to ask, “Is this employee salvageable?”    The length of time an employee has been with a company, the investment the company has made in training and education and the employee’s contributions all relate to the time and effort an employer might consider expending on keeping them on board.

In the instance of Lee, if he has been a normally high performer over the years and/or fills a critical position, then some effort is probably worthwhile.  If he is a short timer or his work has been habitually shoddy, then maybe not.  I will say, however, that if the latter is the case an organization may want to examine why Lee was chosen in the first place or how he’s being managed as it may point to flaws in their selection, training or performance review processes.


When a manager encounters an employee who is performing or behaving poorly they should perform a triage of sorts by asking some questions:

      • How long has the problem existed?
          • If for a short time –  Address it immediately
          • If for a long time:
              • Without management intervention – it’s a management issue
              • With management intervention – it’s a performance issue
      • What needs to change? (focus on the behavior, not the individual)
      • What is the employee’s responsibility in this change?
      • What support does the employer/manager need to provide for this change to occur?
      • Put a supportive plan in place

This last point can cut across several areas of concern.  If it’s purely a performance issue then support can range from a simple discussion to implementing an improvement plan.  If it’s a family issue, say a divorce, illness or financial crisis, it may include linking the employee to HR for a discussion about family medical leave, a leave of absence or counseling by a professional through your EAP (Employee Assistance Program) or by providing a list of resources.  Your HR Department is a valuable resource throughout the support process. 

Life Happens

Your employees are your key to success.  How you choose them and, for the purposes of this month’s topic, how you respond and support them during the good and bad times determines your level of success.   If you’ve chosen well you probably have built a good team.  However, life happens.  How you respond can make the difference whether an individual is viewed as a problem employee or is an employee with a problem; one that can be solved.  Sometimes the best approach is to respond and respond quickly by asking – “How can we help?”

Pat the Great Cat would be proud….

Here to serve,
John Duba

Next month: A Look Ahead at 2013

clip_image005  P.S. – Happy Thanksgiving
from Mustard Seed Solutions
to you and your families!

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