Handling malicious obedience

Dear Bob ...In an article last year you mentioned an employee subverting a supervisor through malicious obedience ["The hierarchy of power," Keep the Joint Running, 6/20/2005].  In all the years I’ve been a supervisor I’ve never had one until now.  Any suggestions on how to handle?- SabotagedDear Sabotaged ...The answer depends a lot on the root cause. Put baldly, the question on the table is, is i

Dear Bob ...

In an article last year you mentioned an employee subverting a supervisor through malicious obedience ["The hierarchy of power," Keep the Joint Running, 6/20/2005].  In all the years I’ve been a supervisor I’ve never had one until now.  Any suggestions on how to handle?

- Sabotaged

Dear Sabotaged ...

The answer depends a lot on the root cause. Put baldly, the question on the table is, is it the employee, or is it you?

Some employees are simply malcontents. It's in their character for one reason or another. At the right times in history they might turn into Samuel Adams (the revolutionary, not the beermeister) and do something incredibly useful for the world. When they're one of our employees, however, they're constant pains in the neck.

If you're dealing with a simple malcontent, you should strongly consider terminating the individual (or, if you're feeling Machiavellian, try to get him transferred to a department run by one of your organizational rivals ... but that would be wrong, of course). Check with HR for procedures and appropriate documentation, of course.

If you think the employee can be rescued and want to go through the effort, start by documenting specific instances. Then sit down with the employee and lay it on the table: "I don't know what you think you're going to accomplish, but what you are going to accomplish is finding yourself another position - this isn't acceptable, and I really don't care how good you are at loopholing policies and guidelines to prove you didn't violate any of them. What I care about is getting the job done well, and that isn't what you're doing. You have all the potential in the world - it's your attitude that's killing you. Only you can decide whether you want to contribute to this company or continue to try to damage it. My decision is whether to be patient while you figure it out. So what's it going to be?"

You'll need the documentation because employees who act this way are brilliant at denial - both to you and to themselves. And know in advance that the odds aren't all that good - mostly, you're putting yourself through this to satisfy yourself that you did the right thing. Not that this is a bad approach to leadership - I recommend it.

On to you as the possible offender. Think through the employee's job history. Did something change recently that might have cause the employee to become disaffected? I've seen this kind of thing happen because an employee expected a promotion and was disappointed (and then I didn't handle his disappointment very well). Have you cut another employee some slack, and this one has had to pick it up so all the work gets done? Have, on a few occasions, other employees received plum assignments while this one has been kept handling the day-to-day? Do you give recognition for achievement in staff meetings, only this character is never on the receiving end?

It isn't that these things don't happen. They do, and sometimes there's no avoiding it. It's how you handle them when they do occur that has the impact.

If you think it's you but you aren't sure, have a modified version of the meeting sketched out above, only start with a more compassionate opening: "Until a few months ago, I thought you were one of our most [promising/reliable/hard-working/substitute favorable adjective] employees. Something changed - I don't know what happened, but the result has been that you're killing me through malicious obedience. Want to tell me what's going on?"

One way or another, you have to take care of this. Leaving the situation unchanged will poison everyone else in the organization.

- Bob