El Nino – Don’t take it personally!


I love water. Really I do. I love water to bathe in, cook with, and its refreshing qualities on a hot day. I don’t love water in my garage. Thankfully El Nino is coming! This means a great deal of water will be running willy-nilly all over my neighborhood. Even though I love water, I need to set some boundaries to protect my home. I have to take a stand and do my best to manage the water according to what supports my long-term goals and what doesn’t.  Specifically, water coming under the garage door and flooding my garage doesn’t support my long-term goals.

So I put sandbags up against the door to give the water a clear, firm message about my boundaries and priorities. As much as I love and value water, the preservation of my house is my top priority.

My intention is to clearly delineate how I need the water to behavior – soaking into the earth, not rolling into the garage.

As I consider the tension between how much I love water, especially in a drought, and how much of a mess unmanaged water can create, I’m reminded of managers who come to me with the same issue with employees.

Often managers are befuddled by staff that are like El Nino’s waters - loved and valued, however sometimes behaving in ways that don’t support the priorities of the company.

Here are some examples (not actual clients but composite stories that are representative of the situations presented to me over the years):

Resistant to Change Joanna has been with XYZ Company for nearly 15 years. She is known and liked by clients and officemates. She does much of her job extremely well. Her historical knowledge of the company and the business is invaluable. However, the competitive landscape is changing. Customer loyalty is changing.  XYZ Company must depend on their strengths, which are personalized customer service, understanding the nuances of their customers’ needs and recommending the best quality products. Utilizing those strengths they will be able to retain customers and attract new ones in a highly competitive market.

But Joanna is not inspired to change with the times. Her manager spends much of our coaching time lamenting over the lost accounts caused by Joanna’s failure to respond fast enough or be proactive in product recommendation. Her refusal to change is actually hurting the bottom line as existing customers go to other vendors. When asked why he retains her, he says “but everyone likes her so much”.

Excuses, Excuses Robert works in an industry where weekend shifts are required for managers. His role requires that he work one shift per weekend. A valued employee who is well liked by colleagues, Robert is also responsible for scheduling. Over the past year he has been scheduling himself less and less on weekends – even though the policy is that a senior manager must be on duty on weekends. Just like the water coming under my garage door, this didn’t start suddenly, but was a slow shift in behavior until suddenly management realized that Robert was not scheduled at all on weekends!

Robert’s response to repeated reminders about his lack of weekend shifts is that his department is understaffed.  He leaves the meetings saying he will “figure it out” yet nothing changes. Management is frustrated and weary from trying to hold Robert accountable. His peers are disgruntled that they are doing their share and he is not.

The Weary Manager When I coach supervisors or leaders on what is required to hold people accountable, I frequently get a defeated shoulder shrug, an exasperated tone, and an exclamation about why people just can’t do the right thing. Usually there is some comment about, “I’m so tired of babysitting” or “I feel like a nag” or “I just want everyone to do their job”.

Many people are like water. If the boundaries aren’t clear and firm, they push the boundary. As the manager, you usually don’t discover how much they’ve pushed until there is an issue, such as weekend shifts not running smoothly or customers going elsewhere.

So how do you deal with valuable staff that continually push your boundaries?

Step One:  Ask yourself this question – If this were a new employee and they behaved this way, would I terminate them?

If the answer is yes, why aren’t you doing that with this employee?

Frequently what holds us back is that we “like” them. This emotional attachment keeps us from giving clear feedback and holding them accountable for change.

Some reasons I hear frequently:

  1. He’s been here a long time.
  2. I went to his child’s wedding.
  3. His niece is engaged to my nephew.
  4. He does great volunteer work in the community.
  5. Customers like to see his smiling face when they come in.

Step Two:  Be clear on the priorities for your department or company. Make a list so you can communicate them clearly. For example,

  1. Proactively contact existing clients with opportunities for savings.
  2. Respond to inquiries within 4 hours.
  3. Provide excellent service by having a manager on duty for every shift.

Step Three:  List the ways in which the staff person is not supporting the goals of the organization. Such as,

  1. Not prioritizing new client inquiries within the time line determined.
  2. Not proactively educating and upselling new products and services to clients.
  3. Not providing leadership and coaching to staff on weekend shifts.

Now look at the list created in step one. Do any of these items listed support the achievement of the items in list two? If not, they are not relevant to this conversation.

The only relevant items for this discussion are the goals of the organization, behaviors required to achieve those goals, and the gap between the two (list three).


Identify and be clear on your line – i.e. what you are willing to tolerate and what you aren’t. If you are willing to allow the employee to continue to behave outside the way you need them to, then just stop venting about it.

Staff continually pushing your boundaries?


What is your line? If you give an employee direct, clear feedback about how they must perform in order to support the priorities of the organization and they choose not too, what are you willing to do? It is critical to know this in advance so you can communicate the consequences.

Consider all the options.

If when told that he must work one weekend shift per week, Robert still continues to not schedule himself, are you willing to demote him from manager to line staff? Or accept his resignation? If his expertise is too valuable to lose on the management team, are you willing to terminate him? Are you willing to deal with the drama or potentially lose other managers who are working weekend shifts?

If Joanna continues to be slow to respond to clients or not proactively upsell the products that clients need, are you willing to absorb the potential loss revenue? What is your line? Are you willing to let her go.

Framing the Feedback- Go back to all the things you listed in question one – the things you value or like about the person – and for the sake of this conversation, set them aside.

Lead with what you want. “Joanna, I want you to continue to be a productive and valuable part of this team."

State the needs of the company. “The priorities for the company right now are to retain clients by providing superior customer service."

Be specific about what this means. “This means to be successful in your role, you must be timely and proactive with customer service, and educate and upsell new products to existing clients."

Clarify what this looks like. “Starting today, you must call clients back within 4 hours of an inquiry. You must schedule 4 hours per week that is dedicated to calling existing clients to educate them about the new product options. You will need to stay current with the new customer database technology and keep all notes and information in the system. And you will need to proactively ask for help with prioritization."

Share measurement. “You and I will check in weekly on your progress and for coaching on any challenges. We will meet on Tuesdays at 2:15 for 20 minutes. You will come prepared with how many proactive calls you made and to whom. How many new clients you responded to and what the result was. What challenges you have and what help you need.”

Get confirmation. “Joanna, in order for the company to achieve our goals, we need everyone to be moving in the same direction. I am here to support you and provide resources but you must be willing to do what it takes to be part of the team. Is this something you are willing and ready to improve upon?”

Communicate the line and the consequences. “I will be assessing your progress on these changes over the next 3 months. If at the end of the three months you are not: A. Calling clients within the four-hour window. B. Doing four hours per week of proactive calls to existing clients. C. Meeting with me weekly prepared with the information stated. D. Staying current with technology and entering all information in the database.

We will need to discuss if you are in the right seat or if we need to make a change. You are valued and I am hopeful you will choose to make these changes with my support."

Remember, the staff person has a choice in how they want to proceed. Many managers say to me, “In the meeting he agrees to everything I say and then he goes back and nothing changes."  Well, that’s not their fault. That is your fault for not being clear on your line, stating the consequences and then following through.

Document. Follow up with an email that states clearly the components of the discussion and the next steps.

Lead with Consistency. You must do what you say. You must show up for the meetings. You must not cancel, reschedule or let them fall away. If the staff person forgets, isn’t prepared, or laments that the meetings take too much time, you must hold the line. The check-in’s and coaching is part of what is required to be an effective team member.

Holding people accountable is part of what it takes to sustain and improve the outcomes for your organization.

It is no surprise El Nino is coming. It has been predicted for months. It is no surprise water leaks under my garage door. It has happened for years. I can either deal with it head on or I can be wishy-washy, hope for the best, and suffer the consequences. If my home suffers, it is my fault for not setting the boundary.  Just like with resistant employees, it isn’t their fault and it isn’t personal.

Employees can be like water. Don’t take it personally. Just be clear on your boundary.

Want to dive deeper into boundaries, communication and accountability? There are few seats left for Navigating Challenging Dialogue™ on Friday January 22, 2016. Invest in yourself and your skill development today!