Helping 'problem workers' -- supervisors might start with themselves

By , Business and financial writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Mardy Grothe thinks part of the so-called "problem of the American worker" can be solved by taking a bit of conventional management wisdom and standing it on its head:

"Most employees aren't very pleased with the performance of their supervisors ," Dr. Grothe says. If a company has employees who are giving it trouble, he believes, managers should look at themselves first.

If they did, he says, they might reduce the number of American workers known as "problem workers" -- people who don't produce, who can't get to work on time, who are rude to clients and customers, who almost never put in any extra time, or who will not follow instructions.

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"When you've got a problem employee," he notes, "you've really got a problem relationship between somebody who works and somebody who manages."

Grothe, a counseling psychologist who lives in Lincoln, Mass., and Dr. Peter Wylie, an industrial psychologist in Washington, D.C., have spent much of the past several years dealing with problem employees -- and problem managers. As partners in Performance Improvement Associates, a consulting firm, they have held seminars at trade association meetings and in corporate offices on how to deal with troublesome workers.

Most recently, they collaborated on a book, "Problem Employees: How to Improve Their Performance" (Pitman Learning Inc., 6 Davis Drive, Belmont, Calif. 94002, $16.95). Grothe says the book is the result of taking the material presented in the seminars and breaking it down into its "component parts."

Beginning with explanations on how to analyze an employee's performance to setting up and handling a performance improvement interview, the book gives clear, step-by-step directions on how to identify problems, what questions to ask, how to answer questions from the employees, and negotiating performance agreements. For neophyte supervisors, it even gives examples of how to say things. For instance: "Pat, I'd like to arrange a time to meet with you to review your work performance. It's something I'm planning to do with everybody in the office."

Most bosses expect to present the worker with a list of strengths and weaknesses at these meetings, but Grothe suggests employees should also be encouraged to prepared a list of the supervisor's or the company's strengths and weaknesses as they apply to him personally and the firm in general.

The book is laid out in a 10-step process that concludes with a step called: "What do I do if none of this stuff works?"

If "none of this stuff works," recommendations include transferringm the employee to a different job, restructuringm the job so the duties are more compatible with skills, neutralizingm the employee into a harmless position (usually reserved for people who cannot be fired, such as relatives), and firing.m

"As much as I believe in the possibility of human beings changing," Grothe said in an interview, "more people should be fired." Instead of firing people -- a prospect that makes executives "very nervous" -- they will "prop them up with other effective people. But get rid of them? Are you kidding?"

The book is written partly for the many supervisors who won their jobs not because they were good at managing people, but because they did well in other areas: They were good salesmen, manufacturing experts, designers, lawyers, accountants, or writers. Suddenly, their good work has elevated them to positions where they are supposed to be motivating, evaluating, and deciding on the future of others. And while their formal training may have prepared them to be designers, lawyers, or accountants, business and professional schools offer litte, if any, preparation in managing people, Grothe says.

Another group that can benefit from the book are the millions of entrepreneurs who have the know-how and skill to develop and sell a new product or service, but know nothing about the skills needed to manage the people in the new company.

The most important skill supervisors and employers need to gain, Grothe says, is listening. He says the listening skills of many corporate executives are "just abysmal. Most people don't listen very well, and when they disagree with what the other person is saying, that's when they really become bad."

One exercise he and Dr. Wylie put executives through to correct this involves "reading it back." When one person is through speaking, the other one does not respond, but reads back, or repeats, what the first person said. "If you've been forming your counterresponse, you can'tm read back what the other guy has said."

Now that the book is written, Grothe says, he and Wylie are doing much less of the kind of work that led up to it. Instead, he says, they are working with chief executive officers of small to medium-size companies, helping them to deal with the people that report directly to them. They are also working with family businesses where personal relationship problems are standing in the way of smooth operation.

At one New England company, for instance, Grothe and Wylie were dealing with a man who had founded the company and was chairman of the board, and his son, who was president and expected to take over completely one day. The father felt the son was too eager to take the business into new directions and did not feel he appreciated all the work that had gone into building it. The son believed his father was not doing enough to help the company grow.

After 10 daylong sessions, the relationship improved enough so that the father was able to turn over complete legal control of the company to the son, preserving family harmony and avoiding the prospect of sticky inheritance problems, which also preserved the company.

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