Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

How to Deal with a Distracted Employee

Dear Crucial Skills,

My brother has a small IT business and usually employs four to five people at a time. He recently employed a twenty-year-old college student we’ll call Mark. Because of his girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy, Mark had to stop studying and finds himself raising a family. His family situation is complex; he commutes about an hour to work and then another hour to the opposite side of the city to his girlfriend’s home. The baby is three months old and there are tensions in their young family.

My brother wants to help this young man, but at the same time, finds himself paying good salary to someone who shows up late, leaves early, and has constant distractions at work. Mark is often visibly tired and drowsy. My brother has considered letting him work from home, but I advised him against it. Adjusting Mark’s schedule to part-time is another option, but would mean a pay cut to Mark. My brother knows he is up for a crucial conversation with Mark. What is the best way to approach this?

Out of Options

Dear Out of Options,

This question hits so close to home for me! I have a fifteen-month-old daughter and commute over an hour to VitalSmarts each day. If not for the crucial conversations I use at home everyday to relieve the natural tensions of a blended family (I also have four children from my husband’s first marriage), I could be Mark!

Your question brings to mind a question I have often considered—is it possible to bring too much heart to a conversation? It seems clear that your brother has the best of intentions toward Mark. He actually knows what is going on in Mark’s life, which is not something all employers can say. Second, he is actively seeking solutions that would help Mark and considering the impact of those solutions on Mark. Both of these things demonstrate a lot of heart. But does he have too much heart? When do you say enough is enough?

Honestly, I think it is impossible to bring too much heart to a conversation or a relationship. An overabundance of caring and concern is never a problem. However, an imbalance of caring and concern is.

Years ago, I read a wonderful article about the pitfalls of being a small business owner. One pitfall was caring too personally for the individuals in your employ, who are often also related to you. The author pointed out that small business owners hold on to poor-performing employees too long, often at the expense of other employees.

The key then is making sure you are balanced in your concern. In Crucial Conversations, we teach that you assess your motives (Start with Heart) by asking not only what you want for the other person, but also what you want for yourself, for the relationship and for others in the organization. So you must balance your concern for yourself and the needs of others with the needs of Mark. Allowing Mark’s poor performance to persist not only has negative implications for your brother, but it’s also unfair to the others who work for him.

So here is some practical advice for your brother and everyone out there who has a “Mark” in their life.

First, get really clear on your expectations. What exactly needs to be done? Does it matter how or when it is done? What constraints are you operating under? It is imperative that we challenge our own assumptions about how work is done, the biases we have about different schedules or approaches, and the norms we may be operating under without even realizing it.

It is easy to think, “I need someone here from 8 a.m.–5 p.m.,” because that is how it’s always worked in the past. But it may be true that it is more about the work getting done than the person being present. Is work from home or flexible work-time an option? If not, why? What are the barriers and are they worth removing? The answers are less important than the clarity around them. For some roles, people absolutely need to be in an office space. Some roles must be from 8 a.m.–5 p.m. That is fine. Just make sure you know why, and that you are clear about your expectations.

Next, communicate the gap. Once you are clear in your own mind on the expectations, articulate them for the other person. Make sure Mark is as clear as you are. Then share the gap you see between your expectations and his performance. Make this 100 percent factual. At this point, it isn’t about why there is a gap or even what the gap means. This is solely about clearly communicating the gap.

Finally, diagnose what is causing the gap and start brainstorming how you can close the gap. As you do so, make sure you communicate your Mutual Purpose. Your goal should be to close the gap by finding a solution that meets both your expectations and Mark’s needs. Be open to diverse ideas about this. Anything that meets your expectations and Mark’s needs should be discussable, even if it is something you wouldn’t have thought of or aren’t initially comfortable with.

One last caveat—it is not your brother’s job to solve this problem by himself. When we care a great deal about someone, we often think we need to figure out the solution and then present it to them like a gift. We think, “Maybe Mark could work from home? Or maybe he could work part-time?” Thinking through alternatives beforehand is not necessarily a bad idea. Just be careful that you don’t unilaterally decide on the solution beforehand.

The purpose of the dialogue is to involve Mark in finding a solution, to help Mark understand where you are coming from, and to make sure Mark knows how much you care. This may mean that the conversation is really a series of conversations, one in which you discuss the gap and others in which you brainstorm solutions over time.

I wish your brother luck in working through this situation.


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6 thoughts on “How to Deal with a Distracted Employee”

  1. Jon

    Good, practical example of applying CC and CA.

  2. Patricia Pitsel

    In small companies owners have to also consider the rest of the staff. Anything that is done to accommodate Mark’s personal situation then becomes a possible expectation by the rest. Work from home? Why not let everyone work from home? Job sharing? Maybe others would love to job share. Flexible work hours? Just get the work done however it best fits your schedule. It can go on and on.

    By all means, have the CC, and be as skilled as possible in dealing with Mark, but it should also be kept in mind that others in this very small company will be impacted by the decisions that are made.

  3. Nell Walton

    There is also the possibility of FMLA – which was created for situations like this. It can give an employee some breathing room to get health and or personal issues under control. I just recommended it to one of my direct reports – he has similar issues, but job performance is not a problem, but occasionally attendance is – he has to be available at times to deal with serious health issues in his family.

    1. Nell Walton

      That is if FMLA applies to your company.

  4. Diane

    Always learning something new from Vital Smarts! Today what clicked was the distinction between “having too much heart” (probably not) and having a BALANCE between caring and concern. Such a clear explanation that I can’t wait to use, share, think about in many situations. Thanks!

  5. tutorsinkigali

    Emily thanks for these vital suggestions. They are smart.

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