Tough Love—What if the manager needs it as well as the “star in his own mind” employee?

A true story


Our small professional service firm’s customers either love or hate “Sam.” The customers lucky enough to work with Sam when he’s “on” tell me he’s better at his job than anyone they’ve ever worked with. Customers who interact with Sam when he’s having a bad day either ask me to switch them to another staff member or worse, cancel their relationship with our small company. When customers ask that I take Sam off their projects, other employees or I step and give the customers their next project at no charge so we can smooth things over and keep their business.

I like, admire, and respect Sam, though he annoys me because he shows up late and sleepy for staff meetings and often turns in reports days after they’re due.

I’ve offered Sam open access to our employer assistance program, as I suspect he battles depression. He refuses. When I give Sam customer feedback, we get into discussions that go nowhere as Sam talks my ear off, explaining in excruciating detail how the blame lies with the customers.

Because I want to be fair to Sam, I’ve investigated each problem situation. Here’s what I’ve found. Sam uses his natural talents to dazzle the customers who think he’s the greatest. Sam gives minimal effort to the customers who interact with him when he’s having a “down” day. Sometimes Sam doesn’t listen to what customers want because he thinks he knows better than they what they need; they resent it.

I want to keep Sam but can’t afford to keep losing customers. Do you have a tough-love approach that might work?


Tough love

Here’s tough love for both of you. Sam dodges accountability—and you let him. Because Sam doesn’t take responsibility for the difficulties he creates, he doesn’t see the need to make changes. As Sam’s manager, it falls to you to hold him accountable. When you don’t, you burden other employees and pay for it in lost customers and fees.

If you want to keep Sam, you need to convince him he owns the problems he creates. You also need to give him a clear-cut measure up or “we can’t afford you on our team” message. While tough love seems called for, unless you can first change how Sam views these situations, you’ll futilely toss your tough love message on rocky soil and won’t see lasting changes.

Here’s what’s been happening when you earlier tried to get through to Sam. You showed him more respect than he showed you. You listened to him, but he defended himself by blaming others. The praise he receives when he’s “on” clouds his thinking, and he tunes you out and talks until you give up.

Why some don’t “get it”

Sam isn’t unique. When conflicts arise, many of us exaggerate our innocence and leave out how we contribute to problems. Not only do we tell ourselves stories that get us off the hook and excuse us from blame and accountability, but we replay them in our minds until we’re convinced of their truth. You need to change Sam’s mindset by asking him questions that force him to reconsider his stories.

You need to find what matters

Start with what Sam wants as employees make changes for their own personal reasons. Does he want to be known as the most talented professional in the industry? Does he want a greater number of high-prestige clients? Does praise matter? Does he want to keep his job?

The “press reset” accountability discussion

Then, give him the facts. You don’t need to dance around the truth or mince words. Straightforward honesty produces the best results. When he starts justifying and rationalizing away his accountability, ask him what he could have done differently. If he says he did everything right, he tosses the problem back in your lap. Do you want that type of employee behavior?

If you sense you’re getting through to Sam, outline the improvements he needs to make and the consequences if you don’t see changes. Word the results outcomes you need to see specifically, positively, objectively, and measurably. You want Sam to leave your meeting with a crystal-clear understanding of what he needs to do, as well as what achieving your expectations means to him. End your meeting on a positive note and with a set date when you and your employee will meet again to review progress and the successful meeting of the expectations.

Chapter 7 of Managing for Accountability, provides dozens of effective questions along with two real-life success stories showing exactly how this one-two punch— questions followed by facts and consequences, works. Please let me know how things turn out.

(c) 2022 Lynne Curry

P.S.: If you’d like more understanding concerning how the “stories” a person tells him/herself, you’ll find it in Chapter 13 of Navigating Conflict Chapter 14 describes how owning one’s own contribution to conflict creates power.

Managing for Accountability also details how to hire employees who show accountability; how to maintain high levels of accountability in employees and managers, and how to press “reset” when employees fall away from accountable behaviors.

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