The Management Lesson Learned From Question 33

At a credit union where I previously worked we would have an all-day, all-employee meeting every few years. For one of these meetings about 20 years ago, we hired a nationally-respected firm to conduct an employee satisfaction survey.

The employees were asked to rate just about every aspect of the workplace culture. There were about 100 questions.

When I saw the results, the response to one particular question, number 33, made more of an impact on me than responses to any other question. Question 33, as I can best remember it, was: "Management deals quickly and effectively with problem employees." It was on that question the employees gave management the worst rating.

One would think that the big issues would be pay and benefits or promotions or vacations. Nope. The rank-and-file were upset management did not effectively and quickly handle problem employees. It was also clear that this criticism was strongest the closer employees were to the front lines. The more I reflected on this, I realized it would be a significant issue for the employees who actually have to get things done. It is the best employees who have to take up the slack for their peers who don't pull their weight, or even worse, exhibit behaviors and attitudes that interfere with good employees doing their job.

Too often these situations can become highly toxic and management's failure to "quickly and effectively" address the situation can cause serious organizational damage. The good employees get frustrated and leave. The crazies end up running the place. There is only one remedy and that is managerial courage. Those words are easy to write but extremely hard to deliver.

I have to admit that dealing with problem employees was always a flat spot for me and dogged me even to my recent retirement. I would tolerate misbehavior, conflictive attitudes and poor performance way too long. Worse was that I would wait and wait until I would go emotionally nuclear and the person was gone that day.

My friend and mentor, retired SACU CEO Jeff Farver, once wrote in my performance review: "Ed Speed has never encountered a problem that he couldn't re-organize his way out of." He was right. My team deserved better.

My successor at TDECU, Steph Sherrod, is the exact opposite, with the ability to see a very broad institutional horizon and an intuitive sense of employee hot-spots. Steph takes the initiative very early on, and has no hesitation to address the issue respectfully, firmly and quietly. One area where Steph and I were absolutely aligned is that these situations were very rarely about workplace effectiveness or technical performance. Managerial courage is rarely required when an employee cannot do the work.

When an employee just can't do the work, the employee and their peers know the truth long before management. Fortunately, because of our size, it was rare that we could not find another position that would be a better fit for a good employee. In these cases the employee was usually relieved that we got them out of the situation.

The greatest challenges are always attitudinal issues. Issues involving managerial incompetence or behavior are much more problematic. At TDECU we were incredibly tolerant of operational mistakes, but rarely so when it came to the "soft" issues. But we also recognized the difference between someone with a bad attitude and someone just having a bad day.

These are some of the toughest aspects of senior leadership, but it is a rare institution that invests in the professional development required to help management handle these situations. Unfortunately, the best employees pay the price.

Edward Speed recently retired as CEO of the $2-Billion Texas Dow Employees CU. He can be reached at edwardspeed1948@yahoo.com.