Dealing with Nostalgic Employees
It's important to know when to hold on and when to let go.
A few weeks ago, an employee of one of the companies I coach privately reached out to me. I had spoken with him while I was on site and frankly ran out of time to finish the conversation. Truth be told, I doubt that the conversation could ever come to a logical conclusion. It was as if he had never had the opportunity to discuss the company, and I had just opened up the floodgates. I have no problem with this. Business therapy is often part of the service I perform. Unfortunately, he was so stuck in the past, that he could not see how his current behavior was the true source of his frustration.
Like many long-term employees, this gentleman was nostalgic about the good old days when he joined the company. While there is nothing wrong with understanding the historical progression of a company, it should be put into perspective. Understanding history can help us avoid making similar mistakes in the future. When the employee can’t see the current direction of the company, and finds him or herself in an outlier position, who is to blame? While I am a strong proponent of personal responsibility, management must be able to recognize the situation and take corrective action before it becomes disruptive.
As I mentioned above, my conversation with this gentleman had opened the floodgates. He proceeded to tell me what was wrong with the company and his supervisor. It should be noted that the company had just concluded its most profitable year in history. He felt that he was not being heard and in fact being picked on for working at a different pace. He explained that his performance was down compared to last year, but that was based on his customer base being down, not any of his actions. I think you are getting the picture here. This guy was swimming further and further away from shore and his boss was letting him do it.
I remember seeing this in my own organization; long-term employees going along a path away from the company direction and managers letting them continue to separate further. It is only when the situation becomes unbearable, for either one or both parties, that action occurs. Why do we wait so long? Both parties are playing ostrich in this situation. They need to pull their head out of the sand and address the issues. The health of the organization depends on it.
Recognizing the direction of the organization
First, the employee needs to realize that s/he has strayed too far from the direction of the organization. If you have been around a long time, you can see what’s going on. Years ago, one of my more nefarious distribution friends shared something with me that stuck. He was always getting in trouble with his boss and his performance was lacking. One day, he had a light bulb moment – just follow directions. He told me, “My life got a whole lot better when I just followed directions and did what I was told to do.” He spent so much energy scheming on how to doing things his way, that he was too exhausted to be productive. Clearly, less than ethical behavior should be questioned, but this is rarely the situation. More likely, the management direction is not comfortable. We need to remember, it’s called work for a reason.
Be a contributor
I have never been one to stifle creativity in the workplace. In fact, I often believe that it is the most underutilized asset businesses possess. The biggest challenge for the outlier is getting others to listen. Those who swim against the current, or cause waves and generally create heartburn for their managers, do not get listened to. If you want to offer constructive suggestions, you must first prove that you are worthy of being listened to. It is far easier to invoke change from the inside. My advise to those long-term employees who feel cast aside is to get back to the middle of the pack. Show that you can be a contributing member of the organization. As your behavior changes, you should see a bit more inclusion by management.
Are you a good fit?
Finally, be honest with yourself about your role in the company. Are you really happy with the direction? If not, perhaps it is time to find a new sandbox to play in. Many long-term employees have been thrust into roles, based on longevity, that they were never really suited for. There is no shame in admitting that the current role does not fit your personality or skill set. Be willing to seek out a role, even if it means a temporary step down, that allows you to perform at your best.
Management should not get a hall pass in these situations. In the case of my client, we have had many discussions about this individual. It is no secret that he is an outlier. The employee is consistently chasing down opportunities that are way outside the core market focus of the company. He avoids tasks and is constantly going to the owner when he is looking for a different answer. It is time to put this nonsense to a stop.
Most managers have a difficult time dealing with conflict. This is especially true when the employee has a lot of time under his or her belt. Setting clear standards is one way to start correcting the situation. It is very common to see special accommodations made for a senior employee. Avoid this like the plague. If you give an inch, they will take a mile. Set standard expectations for performance in the position. When you let one person work with a different set of rules, you blow your credibility with everyone else in that position.
Special deals, with regard to compensation, will derail your efforts to bring team cohesion and set standards. This is another one of those situations I regularly see with long-term employees. Regardless of how painful it is, management must untangle the mistakes of the past. Special treatment leads to resentment and will further separate this employee from the pack. It may seem cold or harsh, but the needs of the organization must outweigh the desires of the individual.
Standardization comes with consistent monitoring. Your people need honest, timely feedback on their performance. This is especially true for the employee who is drifting away from the pack. In most cases, I think annual reviews are utterly worthless. The way they are commonly executed, by sitting down and filling out a review document once a year, is a waste of time. Seriously, what are you reviewing? The last six weeks at best. If you want to do a quality review, commit to doing a mini review every month. Course correct with the employee and document the meeting. After 12 months of documented data, you should be able to write a meaningful annual review. Sounds like too much work? Too bad. Management is not for the faint of heart.
Time to end it?
When all else fails, learn to terminate the relationship. It is not fair to either party to let an outlier collect checks while drifting further from shore. From personal experience, we tend to let these situations linger on far too long. Again, other team members see this as a sign of your inability to perform the management function. Good employees will lose faith in your abilities and consider options outside of the company. Let’s face it, in many cases you have already made the decision to let them go. Having terminated several people over the years, I can empathize. I don’t care what anyone says, firing people is never fun; but watching them drift is simply irresponsible.
As you look around your organization, I know that you will see folks that fit this description. Don’t confuse this person with the long-term steady Eddie. It is not absolutely necessary to climb the company ladder. Many folks find their niche and perform solid work. Make sure that everyone understands the direction of the organization. A historical perspective can be valuable, but only as it serves to define the current path. Remember, I am always here to help.