What to do with brats

I have a confession to make: I was a brat. I eventually got over it and became a quasi-productive member of society. But what lessons can we learn from what I went through, and how can you know when to fix, when to fry, and when to walk away from your own bratty problem?

I have a confession to make: I was a brat. There are a lot of us around, so odds are you probably work with one or are one (c'mon, I confessed; you can too).

I'm talking about young (mostly), headstrong employees who know everything. In the presence of strong leadership and a good team environment brats usually just become the irritating, know-it-all employees that everyone else avoids at lunch.

But in a negative work environment—or one marked by a lot of conflict and change—brats become, well, brats. Headstrong, mad at the world, in disagreement with everything and in support of nothing that managers and leaders want to get done. In fact, they can be even a little subversive and take delight in pointing out the many reasons that initiative X is stupid and will only make things worse.

That's the one I was for most of my late twenties. Not my best years.

The attitude problem

Anyway, I knew I was a brat at the time. I was even more irritated by the fact that my manager didn't stop me than I was by whatever he was doing that I was working against.

He could have severely disciplined me or transferred me out. I'm basically a pleaser, so once disciplined it's unlikely that things would have progressed to firing.

But he didn't. What he did was keep trying to work with me. He kept the lines of communications open, and every time I made an ass of myself he gave me another shot to do better.

Did he do the right thing?

In the short term, his approach (just hang on and keep it strictly positive) didn't work. I eventually got out of control enough that the only thing I could do was quit, which I did. Then my life took a turn, and I ended up back in the same organization a few years later in a more senior position working as a contractor for the same manager I was such a brat to.

In the long-ish term, I came back, and I was better. I was older and being away had cooled me off. He was still trying to dig out whatever redeeming quality he had seen in me, I was grateful to have been given another chance, and this time I responded to his efforts at redeeming me. A year later he was promoted and recommended me for his job, which I got.

Could it have been better?

Could he have handled me differently and still ended up with the same result? Was there a path through all of that turmoil that would have ended up with me contributing through all those years, not causing trouble, and still ending up in charge?

It's always fun to play "let's revise history," but the real answer is I don't know. I might have taken the only course I could have.

But, since that promotion five years ago I've had a couple brats to deal with myself. I usually get a lot of advice on how I should handle these folks, mostly pleas to fire them. And I would have 10 years ago. But if I see some glimmer of a redeeming quality under all the bad attitude then I hang on, just like my old boss did.

The "breaking point"

One line of questioning I get when I talk about this point is how to know when enough is enough? In the "best case" should I have been disciplined or transferred? Where is the "breaking point" where you need to get rid of a problem employee because the disruption outweighs their potential value?

I think these questions arise from the ubiquitous nature of this problem: almost everyone is facing it or has faced it. And we all want a recipe to follow to fix it. The trouble is that there isn't a single recipe. You need to judge for yourself what the potential value of the employee is, and weigh that against the cost of the disruption and the cost of your time to reform the brat. This is judgement, not measurement. It's basically an educated guess.

If any of the variables goes to extremes, your answer gets easy. Extremely disruptive employees cause too much damage: discipline quickly and be prepared to transfer or terminate. If you employee has incredible potential that your company can't live without, settle in and start molding. If you have 200 other people to manage and this one is going to take your full attention for a year, that's probably an investment you cannot afford.

Unfortunately, life almost never hands you extremes.

This makes it harder, but hard work is why we need leaders in the first place. When you first start out leading people you'll probably find yourself a lot more willing to work on a brat. You'll be gung ho to "fix" the "problem" for the same reason that people climb Mt. Everest: because it's there. As you go through a few of these and add years to your career you'll discover that your gut gets better trained at being able to spot the people you can actually save versus the ones you should just boot or isolate to contain their damage.

This post is inspired by material in my book, The Only Trait of a Leader.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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