Getting your manager’s support when dealing with a problem team member

Ken Warren

There is no doubt that if you are in a role where you need to address the performance of a team member with a long history of being difficult, that you need the support of your manager. In a government department, you may well need the support of your manager’s manager and their manager as well, right up to the Director level. Otherwise, it is all too easy for the problem performer to go over your head or for you to feel not confident enough to take direct action.

Decisive action by you might be moving the problem performer to another role consistent with their strengths, or one where they are out of harm’s way. Or it could be negotiating their departure out of your workplace, commencing performance management, or outright dismissal if the circumstances warrant this.

So, how to you get the support of senior management so you can do what needs to be done? Here are three things you can do to get them on-side.

  1. Let them know that you need their support. Yes, you shouldn’t have to say this. But sometimes you have to spell out that you need their support in taking decisive action. If you have their backup, you will feel much more confident in knowing that you are taking reasonable actions and doing what needs to be done. If they have been supportive at some time in the past, let them know how much you appreciated this and that you need their backup now.
  2. Let them know what you have done to address the problem performance. Of course, it will that much easier for senior management to support you in taking decisive steps if they know everything that you (and others) have done to turn things around. Speak to previous managers of your team about what they have tried with the problem performer. Show your manager a private summary of what has been tried and whether this resulted in only short-term improvement. They may well be able to suggest you try something that has not been attempted before. But if you really have done double back-flips through hoops to turn things around, this summary will show your manager it is time for more decisive action.
  3. Put the argument for action in terms that are motivating for your manager. Here I am asking you to consider what is motivating to the manager with whom you are speaking. Do they care about the bottom line? That’s great. Create a list of what this particular employee has cost the organization since they have been problematic. Say there has been an estimated reduction in performance of 10%, over the past year, of your team of 10, each on $60,000 p.a. That’s a $60 000 cost! Say two team members have left due to the stress – another $40,000 (minimum) of lost performance in time spent recruiting and training their replacements. It can be quite impressive when you include the figures of increased sick days, time spent counselling staff, stress leave, and Workers Compensation claims. One outstanding problem performer I know has cost her government department $850,000 over the past five years! Perhaps your manager is motivated more by a genuine care for the well-being of your team. Here you might relate stories of how you and your staff have been affected. If they are concerned about keeping the peace, you might share your concern about how things are likely to escalate to a formal grievance if the status quo continues.

If you do not have the support of your management, this is the bigger problem and needs to be addressed first. Ultimately, if you are not able to gain the support of your immediate manager, you are faced with three options – go to their manager, put up with the status quo, or find yourself a more supportive workplace.

Sadly, too many people choose the last option first. Although this may be valid, if you are invested in your current work, I encourage you to speak up and engage the support of your management, if this is possible. Once you have their backup, it becomes so much easier to address problem behaviour in your team.

Reprinted with the permission of Ken Warren BA, M Soc Sc, CSP, a Relationships Specialist who helps teams to perform at their very best. Through his enjoyable, positive and practical speaking programs, Ken will help your people to:

  • Build even stronger, more positive and productive teams
  • Handle difficult conversations in more confident and positive ways
  • Enhance their resilience and well-being at work

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