In reflecting back over the advisory practices I’ve worked with, I’ve realized that problem employees clearly fall into two camps: what I call “Now” employees and “No” employees. “Now” employees will drop their own work, no matter how busy they are, at the request of a coworker or the owner, while “No” employees are at the other end of the spectrum, steadfastly refusing to do anything extra for anyone.
In my experience, “Now” employees usually get overwhelmed and quit, while “No” employees eventually get fired for not being team players. But the good news is that with the right training both kinds of problem employees can be re-made into very good employees who fall somewhere in the middle and base their decisions on what’s best for the firm. I have been lucky enough to work with both “Now” employees and “No” employees. Here’s how you transform them into great employees.
Ironically, “No” employees are easier to turn around. That’s because the problem usually involves only their behavior. When asked for help by another employee, their answer is invariably “No,” usually in the form of an excuse, such as: “That’s not in my job description,” “It’s too hard,” “I don’t have time,” “I don’t know how,” or if they’re particularly passive aggressive, they’ll say, “Yes,” and then not do it.
Often this behavior stems from an inability to manage their time, a lack of confidence to step out of their comfort zone, or simply a desire to do as little work as possible. But regardless of the cause, when an employee says no consistently and often, other folks will stop coming to them for help. Even worse, their coworkers will sometimes even start doing some of the tasks of the “No” employee, rather than receive another rebuke.
What the “No” employees don’t realize is that if their job isn’t done well, even if another employee does it, the failure will reflect badly on them. When that performance is called into question, the situation often turns into a blame game, and the excuse “I didn’t do it” only leads to the manager’s response: “Well, why not?”
It’s a no-win situation for the “No” employee, and can create serious disruption within an advisory firm. As I said, “No” employees usually end up getting fired for not working well with others, but that doesn’t have to be the case. “No” employees will usually change their behavior after the situation is simply brought to their attention. The fact is that even “No” employees want to get along in their working environment. Once their lack of cooperation is pointed out and compared to the teamwork exhibited by the other employees in a small business, “No” employees invariably make an effort to pitch in more, and usually find themselves enjoying their jobs more, too.
The problem with rehabilitating “No” people is that there’s a very real danger they will go too far the other way and become “Now” people. Good employees fall somewhere in the middle: They make rational decisions about what needs to be done now and what can be done later, and they know how to set boundaries and when to tell other employees no. Recovering “No” employees need to realize it’s OK to say no sometimes; the key is to discuss the situation with your coworkers, and make a decision based on what’s best for the firm and its clients.
At the other end of the spectrum, “Now” employees are a problem because in their zeal to please their coworkers, they often don’t get their own work done. Often, the owner or manager doesn’t know what else they are doing in addition to their own jobs, and usually neither the owner nor their coworkers realize how overwhelmed the “Now” employee really is. Often they are simply considered to be not very competent, or bad at managing their time.
“Now” employees are a harder problem to solve. For one thing, their willingness to drop everything to meet a new request often stems from a need to please others. Consequently, they have a very hard time saying no. They also tend to be emotional, sensitive and overly willing to put their own needs last, if they consider them at all. While the silver lining here is that usually “Now” people are in no danger of becoming “No” people, it’s usually a lot easier for “No” employees to start saying yes than it is for “Now” employees to say no.
“Now” employees are also a more complex problem because the problem isn’t usually their behavior alone. Once other employees realize a “Now” employee has a hard time saying no, they often start to take advantage of the situation, often without knowing. They use the “Now” employee to lighten their own workload, even allowing tasks to become last-minute crises, to increase the need for the “Now” employee to do it now.
I became aware of this dynamic when I started coaching “Now” employees to say no when it was appropriate. More often than not, their coworkers reacted with hostility at suddenly having their “requests” denied, or even questioned. In more than one case, the reaction was so strong that the recovering “Now” employee felt the need to leave the office and go home for the day.
After a few such episodes, I realized that “Now” employees were usually part of unhealthy codependent relationships with the other employees that are not easy to unravel. When a “Now” employee changes their behavior, it can be hard for other employees to deal with. Breaking the cycle of enabling requires a firm-wide solution. After considerable trial and error, I found a plan that works great in solving the “I must have everything done now” mentality in a firm:
1. Everyone has to be onboard, including the owners and the managers. Most owners and managers are “Now” people, too, so they are usually sympathetic to the problem, but they often don’t know one of their employees is overwhelmed, or why. Once they do know, they are invariably supportive, and their support makes it much harder for other employees to overreact.
2. Bring the problem out in the open. This is a firm-wide cultural problem, and needs to be handled as a firm. So, hold a staff meeting and clearly spell out the problem: We have employees getting overwhelmed by requests for help, and we need to figure out how to manage the workflow better.
3. Set some boundaries. Creating a process for handling “Now” projects will take some pressure off the “Now” employee. They may still be the go-to person when things needs to be done right away, but set some parameters about what kind of projects they should get and a minimum notice—say, 48 hours—when possible. For a transition period, it’s probably a good idea to have people take last minute projects to the owner or manager first, who will usually ask about how this project came to be last minute. You’d be surprised how many projects don’t end up in a crisis when the boss is involved.
4. Teach the “Now” employee how to talk back. When another employee asks them to do something, the first question should be about the time horizon. And I mean the “hard” deadline: Not just when they’d like it done, but when does it really need to be done? Everyone needs to know the real deadline in order to make sound priority decisions. Next, have the “Now” employee explain all the projects they are currently working on. This will remind the asking employee that the “Now” employee has a job, too, and reveals the added burden their request is creating. Finally, the “Now” employee should ask for the other employee’s help in determining what priority this new task should have. This makes managing the crisis project a team effort—one that can be properly prioritized by what’s good for the firm.
Of course, the best way to solve “Now” employees is by training them how not to be “Now” or “No” employees when they join the firm. If they learn how to teach other employees to deal with them fairly from the beginning, the “Now” (and “No”) cultural dynamic is stopped before it ever starts. And potential “No” employees will understand that “No” behavior will simply not be tolerated. I’ve found that turning problem employees into great employees is the real secret to creating great advisory firms.