What to Do with Impossible Employees? Clean House

When psychiatrist Mark Goulston asked several successful CEOs to name the single most important key to their success, he expected them to refer to their "vision" or their "mission."

But, independent of one another, the CEOs advised: Recognize destructive no-win people inside and outside your workplace early. Then cut your losses and move on.

According to the CEOs, "lean and clean" is more productive than "lean and mean." Toward this end, Goulston started urging employers to perform a "corporate housecleaning" every six months.

How Can Your Firm Achieve This?

1. Clean house.

2. Make time to personally praise good and outstanding employees.

3. "Hire more shrewdly next time," said Goulston.

Foremost on Goulston's list is cleaning house — "cutting out the bad wood," he said. Workplace leaders can prepare for housecleaning with an inventory of employees, placing each worker in one of four categories: Impossible, Difficult, Easy and Extraordinary.

Goulston defined the four categories as follows:

To evaluate your impossible and difficult employees, Goulston recommended you use his "Self-Other Inventory" chart. (See chart below.)

A summary sentence you write on the chart about the attitude of an employee might state: "I can rely on this person to do the bare necessities of the job if he is not annoyed about something." Or: "I can't rely on him to do a task without making mistakes, then blaming others or making excuses." Other summaries might state: "He can rely on me to give him a warning and a chance to improve his work" or "he can't rely on me to endlessly tolerate his sloppy work and negative attitude."

"This tool will help you to [clarify] to employees and yourself what needs to improve in order for the difficult and impossible to keep their jobs," said Goulston, author of Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior.

Goulston encourages workplace leaders to turn the table on themselves, by allowing the employee to fill out the same evaluation chart.

Once a plan of corrective action is devised, deadlines for follow-up discussions and compliance must be set, and then enforced. Failure to comply with the agreed-upon remedies justifies dismissal of impossible employees, Goulston advised.

This charting tool also works for difficult, easy and extraordinary employees. Goulston offered the following summaries regarding these higher-potential categories:

Difficult people may be arrogant, but they're not stupid. They want to get results, but they have big egos. Their intimidating, condescending attitude frequently makes people afraid to tell them when things go wrong. If they don't find out about problems, they can't correct them. If you can't find a way to keep employees from upsetting people around them, then give them their own space and skilled, thick-skinned assistants to insulate them from the rest of the workplace.

Employers, managers and supervisors often take easy and extraordinary employees for granted while their concerns are tied up with other combative and contrary people. You can usually get away with ignoring easy and extraordinary staff members, but it's wrong to do so, Goulston said.

One of the most common pitfalls of less-than-great leaders is letting the people who don't care about the firm or organization distract them from expressing gratitude toward people who do care.

Goulston also polled his CEO clients on their opinions about the second most important key to success. The CEOs replied that next to cutting the impossible people out of their lives early, the most important key is to recognize and value the good people so they could keep them in their lives longer.

Self-Other Inventory Chart
Self-Other Inventory Chart

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