There's no such thing as a 'bad employee'

Bad judgment of an employee's actions is often more at issue than mistakes made

HAVE you ever been told you are a bad employee? I don't mean about some specific issue, some small sin of commission or omission that was probably caused by forgetfulness. I mean a "bad employee" in the sense that your employer was seriously considering firing you. I was told this a few times, mostly when I was younger rather than in my later years. Which is itself interesting since I was inclined to be more contradictory as I got older. As a child I had obedience rather beaten into me. Or, put another way, rebellion more or less beaten out of me.

Wrong usually educates better than right

Although my timing is significantly post-Dickens, the rules of behaviour in my youth were still "be seen and not heard" whether in the nursery or on the school playing fields. How this was supposed to prepare me for management or politics is not clear. That people grew up was self-evident; why and how was less obvious. Today we recognise that failure is a great if tough lesson, success more a honeyed trap.

In building two businesses, I found that the errors of one senior person could be turned into lessons for others. Indeed, major, genuine mistakes earned a bottle of champagne for everyone to have a thimbleful and hear how to avoid whatever trap my colleague - or I - had fallen into. Fear may not be the best motivator but it sure concentrates the mind. The hard knocks of "wrong" educate better than the soft touches of "right". Conscious wrong always involves rebellion.

That employees do bad things is without question. How they are treated when they do determines the culture of the organisation they are operating in. Untrammelled reason is no more the answer than unreasonable pummelling.

Stick and carrot may be outmoded. They are still remarkably effective. The pull and pay of fishing may be a more apt analogy today. Stronger admits of more effort, weaker of a time to ease and recuperate. And it is this theme of rest and restore that I want to talk most about in assessing why there is no such thing as a bad employee.

Face is important in Asia. But it is often thought of too simplistically. Acknowledging that we all make mistakes actually helps those who would lose face if they were thought to be the sole perpetrators of error. Good teamwork is about all of us being in the battle together, not about scapegoats and sacrifices.

Patience and the mirror

If you have ever trained an animal to respond to your orders you will know that the prime ingredient of your lessons is patience. Humans need less of it than your average cow, with its inbuilt tendency to adopt the line of least resistance. The big difference, however, is that we want cows to do exactly what we ask of them, humans rather the opposite. A human required to obey unthinkingly will become a troublesome creature, scanning its mind to discover how to establish its identity. Our four-legged friends are less egocentric.

The best training for a human is as much rough-and-tumble as they can stand but not so much that they will be pushed to insanity. Rough doesn't mean physical battering - although some of that is desirable, too. It means emotional nudge and shove, the sort of pressure that makes us think for ourselves. In the business of mentoring and coaching, the best practitioners learn to judge the limits and push very close to the wire. Too close and damage may be irreparable; not close enough and it most certainly will be. As with all life lessons, judgment counts most.

Fragility and robustness - where do they come from?

An extremely fragile client came to us some years ago. Exactly how fragile we will never know. She was, however, visibly traumatised by an almost total loss of self-respect. That others close to her had been partly responsible for this was no mitigation of the impact of her failing confidence. The building had almost toppled when she arrived at our office. Coaxing her back looked like being about to take a very long and tedious time. Two simple exercises, practised relatively briefly brought her round. Why? Because she needed only to believe that she could do it.

Another client of somewhat similar age and background and with rather the same problem, but the opposite sex, took nearly two years to regain enough confidence to start motivating himself. Was gender a factor in these two cases? Not necessarily so. The girl had been neglected as a child and understood how to get back to even keel pretty much instinctively; the boy had been spoiled and had no clue about how to pull himself together. His was a long but not lonely journey. While the girl relived her childhood, the boy had to start from scratch.

What you see is not necessarily what you get

I said "not necessarily so" of gender in these last two examples. Regardless of the specific circumstances, girls will often be tougher than boys in those aspects of life that demand strong character. Boys, on the other hand, will sometimes be more loath to display weakness believing that exhibited emotions are themselves evidence of lack of robustness. There is, of course, nothing further from the truth. The catharsis of tears is a remedy open to everyone.

My boss once told me he recognised that I was in a bad way when I turned up for a meeting with him. Some time later he told me that he hadn't mentioned it because he thought the subject we needed to discuss was urgent and we didn't have time to deal with my personal problems, whatever they were. He was quite right. The subject at hand was important. Not more important than I was - in my opinion - but certainly more important than would be objectively judged. I needed to recognise that an individual is not always more important than a group of individuals.

No such thing as a bad employee

Taught while young not to make judgments of people, I realised as I grew up, that it was possibly the worst lesson I could have been given. First, it made me neglect the very necessary appraisals we must all make of others to decide everything from whether to befriend them or to lend them money. Second, it made my somewhat naturally sympathetic view of others dangerous by making me a potential victim to scoundrels. Third, and most important, it made my decisions when to help and when to harry less reliable than they needed to be.

There is no such thing as a bad employee, only bad judges of them.

  • John Bittleston is founder and chair, Terrific Mentors International.

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