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How to handle a top performer who steps on others' toes

Prima donnas - highly productive employees who consistently engage in self-centered, some-times bullying behavior. As a dealer or manager, there are few challenges you will ever face that are thornier than the question of how to handle them. But handle them, you must, for two reasons.First, their star performance is not what it seems. Sure, you can measure how many cars they sell or how many hours

Prima donnas - highly productive employees who consistently engage in self-centered, some-times bullying behavior. As a dealer or manager, there are few challenges you will ever face that are thornier than the question of how to handle them. But handle them, you must, for two reasons.

First, their star performance is not what it seems. Sure, you can measure how many cars they sell or how many hours they turn in the shop. Common sense and experience, however, tell you that the real net productivity is far less than the numbers show.

Tolerating prima donna behavior blows a hole right through any discussion of company mission, vision, values or integrity. It seriously depresses the morale, productivity and loyalty of other employees. It lowers the general esteem you personally enjoy among your working population by revealing bottom-line thinking as the only thing that really matters.

You may not be able to put a number to the losses resulting from this, but as Dr. Deming cautioned, "just because we can't measure it doesn't mean we can't manage it."

The second reason you must directly deal with such behavior is the increasing likelihood of legal vulnerability. The courts are trying cases right now in which the question of "psychological abuse" in the workplace is being defined as a legitimate new area for litigation.

But, there is good news. It is quite possible to confront and transform the self-absorbed, arrogant high producers. In fact, it's the fear of losing them and the lack of firm engagement that reinforces their disruptions and makes you, their boss, look like, well...a hypocrite. Such a situation will forever undermine your efforts to create a great workplace community where real accomplishment thrives in balance with high morale. Here is a tried and true method I personally have used both as a manager and as a consultant in dealerships across North America for confronting and saving most prima donna's.

To begin with, you must put forth a clear vision of what a great employee looks like, regardless of the position he or she occupies. Of course, this should be in your employee handbook but that's not sufficient. It must be a living, breathing part of your communication with your managers and front line folks. In one- on-one, group, departmental and company wide settings, you should forever be positively reinforcing the importance of consistent performance on two levels - the operational and the cultural. The essence of this might be expressed as, "Productivity and good citizenship matter equally."

Second, having defined the behavior, you must lead by example. As a dealer or manager, you do enjoy certain choices others may not, but flaunting your position is not one of them. Neither is abusing others through neglect, sarcasm, bullying or tantrums.

Make sure you've got the goods Now, assuming you've taken these first two important steps - communicating the vision and living it, let's imagine we have a specific prima donna you must deal with. You ought to have a file of notes or lengthier descriptions of the behavior in question from a variety of sources - those who have been the direct subjects of unacceptable behavior and those who have witnessed it.

The absolute best-case scenario is when you personally have witnessed it yourself. Let's also assume you or others have had less weighty, formal chats on the same topic with the offender. In other words, this is not the first time. You've tried to be gentle. You've tried giving the benefit of the doubt.

Each time, the behavior improves for a brief time and then reverts back. So this is going to be the last time you have to deal with it. Let's also assume that if you have any legal concerns whatsoever about this particular situation, you've called the company lawyer for the appropriate guidance.

This is not a debate Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally to be compassionate, clear, direct and firm. Invite the individual into a private office and sit face to face with no desk to divide you. Maintain eye contact throughout the process. Speak in a manner consonant with the following:

"Jack, it's very important that you listen to me with everything you've got... and please don't interrupt me. Okay? I wish we weren't in this situation, but we are, so I'm telling you up front that the next ten minutes are likely to be somewhat difficult for both of us.

"What I have to communicate may well upset you. But I want you to know that my intention is to be constructive and to avoid your having to leave the organization. Here's the long and the short of it. You are one of our stars in productivity. That's no secret. But for some time now, your citizenship has been sorely lacking. That's also no secret.

"You've engaged in behavior that is unacceptable (be specific here - it may fall under the category of verbal and psychological abuse or may be more readily described as rabid gossiping, down-putting, negativism, covert insub-ordination). We're not here to debate whether or not you do it. You do it. We've talked before but not forthrightly enough.

"I can't believe in my heart you want to be this kind of person. I do believe in my heart you are essentially a good person. But you're doing damage here and we're not going to get into a knit-picking debate over details. That will no serve no good. We have numerous complaints on file from your fellow employees/subordinates/co-workers to this effect

"Frankly, we have probably made too many allowances for you because of your talent. But that's a double standard and it's wrong, Jack. You have to be as much of a person, as civil and as courteous and as kind as everyone else around here. Your performance, like everyone's, is being assessed in two major areas - the operational area, in which you excel, and the cultural or interpersonal area, in which you are failing.

"A success in one area doesn't offset failure in the other. We need you and everyone in our company to achieve certain thresholds in both. We need people, at the very least, to be kind to each other. You run far too hot and, given your unacceptable performance in the interpersonal realm, we here to discuss your choices.

"There are only two. The first is that you recognize this behavior to be negative and genuinely want to change it for the better and honestly believe you can. If that is your choice, we want to help. We want you to tell us how we can help. We want to suggest you seek some outside help as well. There's no shame in that. We're all unfinished works on this earth. We're all students learning how to live. So, we're hoping you honestly believe you can change, want to and will commit to take action to effect that change."

If the individual jumps in here and begins making testimony that he wants to change and will, hold him off.

"It's premature, Jack, for you to make such a commitment to us. Hear me out. The change can't be a 30-60- 90- day miracle that gradually erodes back into the same old stuff. It's got to be permanent. People don't go around ignoring, hurting or cutting others down as you have unless they've got some powerful unfinished business of some kind within them.

"This is not easy stuff. In fact, this may be one of the toughest learning curves you'll ever work. So I want you to think this through and talk to your loved ones and anyone else you feel you can confide in. I want you to take 48 hours to really do some soul-searching. Then, we'll meet again and you'll tell me if you're going to change and stay or if you honestly think you can't or don't wish to, in which case your choice is to leave us."

Allow some seconds of silence. Let it sink in. Then ask, "Any questions at all?"

If the person gets into a "don't I have the right to face my accuser" mentality, the answer is, "I am the person who is assessing your behavior, Jack. I'm the one you've got to deal with and I've laid it out as cleanly as I can. We're not going to have a debate." If he begins to get angry, say simply, "We're done, Jack. Take the 48 hours and think it through." Get up. Open the door and walk out.

What's likely to happen Have a box of Kleenex nearby. It is common for people to break down and weep in these situations.. They know they've got a problem and usually do want to change. Like children, they've unconsciously been yearning for someone to firmly but compassionately set the boundaries so they can find within themselves the motivation, the sense of urgency to confront their demon.

By all means, if they open up and share their hurt, be 100% present, compa-ssionate and quiet. Let them pour it out. You don't have to comment other than to ask empathetic questions or make empathetic comments. You've already established the boundaries. When they're finished, you might want to repeat them one last time to be sure they didn't get lost in all the emotion. Stick to the plan. Get back together again in two days.

So far, with this technique, my clients have been able to save upwards of 90% of their prima donna's. In fact, it's common for these folks to seek out those they've hurt in the organization and make heartfelt, often tearful apologies. It's also common for them to get involved in counseling.

How you help sustain the change Keep a close eye on this person after he or she recommits. Catch them doing something right. Let them know you're hearing positive feedback. Give them pats on the shoulder and tell them you're proud and they should stay the course.

In some cases, it's quite workable and appropriate to get some peers together, even subordinates, and let them know you've drawn a line in the sand and that the individual in question is really committed to change. Ask them what they think they might be able to do to help. Facilitate a little brainstorming session on the subject.

You may be surprised at how some people will take ownership of the fact that they've played a co- dependent role in allowing themselves to be victimized by prima donna behavior. They commit to stepping up and giving the time-out sign if they see trouble brewing. They agree on some simple, direct non- inflammatory language like, "Jack, time-out, man. This is not who you want to be. Let's break till cooler heads prevail."

By the same token, they can also encourage Jack and give him a slap on the back every time he gets through a day as a "new person." I've seen employees walk right up to a man and say, "I really liked who you were today. Keep it up. You're actually a darn nice guy when you just relax a little."

No doubt, top managers or the dealer himself must take responsibility for initiating and guiding this entire transformational process. In its full form, however, this is an act of community. It was never just Jack's problem. It was the work community's problem because it ultimately diminished everyone by striking at core values.

When the members of that community really take it on, they play a continuing role in the solution, increasing the likelihood it's going to stick. Morale gets a substantial and sustainable transfusion.

We in this business are generally very good at innovating in the realm of operational performance. We should aspire to bring the same caring, guts, determination and insight to cultural performance. We'll be the better for it and, yes, so will the bottom line.

Bob Kamm is president of Kamm Consulting, a firm specializing in personal, professional and organizational transformation. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, The Superman Syndrome.

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