A Positive-Thinking Case Study

Here's a genuine case study from the coaching files. It deals with an employee who exhibited a serious behavioral problem that negatively impacted an entire team. His name was Larry, a highly competent computer systems analyst — as good as they come:

Whenever a technical problem arose in programming or working with the newest software, Larry was the man who had the answers. And he was willing to help anyone at any time, even if his bluff manner was sometimes supercilious. Chuck, the manager and coach, appreciated Larry for his abilities and didn't dwell on Larry's personality excesses. Specifically, Larry's problem was that he liked his female coworkers a little too much. In other words, he occasionally made inappropriate comments and leered at them time and again.

Melissa, a coworker, found working closely with Larry very uncomfortable. And there was no avoiding him, because her job required that she be in constant contact with him. She actually admired Larry's skills at tackling difficult problems and squashing all those awful job-related bugs. But even though she learned a lot about the job from Larry, which she knew would benefit her immensely in the future, she could not ignore the fact that he crossed the line with his unprofessional behavior.

Fed up one day, Melissa approached her coach, Chuck, and told him all about Larry's improper side. She was hesitant at first, knowing that Chuck was a fan of Larry and his technical expertise. Nevertheless, it had to be done. She remembered Chuck's initial orientation to her about the importance of communication between the employee and the coach. Chuck had advised her on day one to come to him with any problems or concerns that she might have, and that he would do his best to help her find the solutions to remedy any wrongs. So she told Chuck the whole story, not holding back the fact that other female members of the staff didn't appreciate these same aspects of Larry's personality, either. She made clear that while she admired Larry's supreme competence in his job role, as well as his willingness to help others, she nevertheless couldn't tolerate any more of his shenanigans.

Chuck listened like a good coach should, asked questions, and promised immediate action. And true to coaching methods, Chuck called Larry into his office the following day. He gave great thought to what he was going to say to him and how he was going to say it. When Larry sat down before him, Chuck informed him that a serious problem had been brought to his attention. He proceeded to tell Larry of the complaint lodged against him. He intermingled his negative feedback — about the unacceptability of Larry's professional behavior — with positive feedback on his consistently solid job performance. Chuck told Larry, “Your knowledge and skills are an asset to the company. You wouldn't want to see your future impeded by behavior unbecoming a man of your talents.” Larry was quite surprised at what he was told. Like so many people with such behavioral excesses, they often don't get it. They don't see their antics as in any way a problem, and they can't understand why anybody would be offended. So Chuck had the additional burden of communicating to his employee not only the problem itself, but also why it was a problem in the first place.

Finally, with persistence and tact, Chuck got his point across with the help of the sensitivity-plus approach. He allowed Larry his ample say in response, and ultimately the two reached solutions to a positive outcome. Larry agreed to be strictly business from that moment forward. He also set out to apologize to all the injured parties. His idea, too! He told Chuck that his job was extremely important to him, and that he didn't want to hinder, in any way, his climbing up the organizational ladder. Chuck then offered to give Larry follow-up feedback in the ensuing weeks. Melissa also agreed to wipe the slate clean, and graciously accepted Larry's apology and promise to rectify his behavior.

This was a positive outcome to a very difficult, negative situation. Performance-related problems are usually clearer cut than are these dicey interpersonal situations. Now, if Larry's apology subsequently proved insincere, Chuck would have another problem to confront, and his search for a positive outcome would inevitably lead him to very different solutions the second time around.

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