Mel Savage Executive Coaching
Managing Relationships

Transform a Problem Employee Into Someone With Loads of Potential

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Here are five ways to transform a problem employee into someone with loads of potential.

Some people are easy to manage.

They operate like you.

They’re open-minded. Responsible. Reasonable.

You like them as people.

You want to spend time on them.

And then there are the people who are tougher for you to manage.

They don’t operate like you.

They colour outside your lines.

They make decisions you wouldn’t make.

They deliver, but they take up more time than you’d like to dedicate to them.

Other people bump up against them.

They have some EQ development needs.

And you label them as “difficult” or “tough”.

You get a twinge of anxiety every time you know you have to “deal” with them.

So you try to avoid it as much as possible.

And then YOU become the difficult or tough boss in the process because let’s be honest… you resent them a little bit for all of that.

You wish they’d make it easier for you.

But when it comes to people development, their job isn’t to make it easy for you. It’s your job to make development easier, safer and more accessible for them.

I’ve been a tough employee.

And I’ve also had reports I’ve considered tough.

I’ve been on both sides.

And you probably have too.

This is great news.

Because you have empathy for what it’s like when you don’t connect with your boss.

Your Nudge this week is to use that to become the leader who transforms someone whose a problem employee into someone with loads of potential.

It’s not easy to do.

But the reward is you prove yourself as a leader who can nurture the potential in anyone and grow leaders.

That’s a valuable asset to any organization.

Plus, you get to change someone’s life in the process.

If that’s not a rewarding job, I don’t know what is.

Here are five ways to transform a problem employee into someone with loads of potential.

1. Commit To Making It Work

Before trying anything else, make the decision to commit to this person’s development. Half in and half out doesn’t work. It only creates confusion for them and you.

And the commitment you’re making isn’t to them. You’re making a commitment to yourself. You’re committing to becoming the kind of leader who unleashes potential and grows leaders.

This is as much work for you as it is for them. Maybe more.

Because it requires you to “unlabel them” as tough.

It requires you to meet them where they are. See their potential before they do. Look for the evidence of their growth and ability (vs. their toughness). And create a safe space for failure.

And when they do make a mistake, it requires you to look for what YOU could do better next time… not just what they could do better.

Most of all, this is a commitment of your time. Of you prioritizing your growth as a people leader over other things on your plate.

2. Align Your Mindset With Your Desired Result

Your desired result is not for them to be better at their job. You can’t control that. All you can control is how you show up.

Your desired result is to show up as the committed people leader who grows leaders. You get to define what that looks like, but if you need support growing into that person, book a leadership strategy session to discuss what coaching could look like for you.

And once you know what behaviors you want to practice, you can align your thinking to your goal. This is so important because you won’t become your desired leader if you’re stuck thinking “This person is a problem” or “ I don’t have time for this” or “They’re just not getting it.”

That’s what you’re thinking now. And it’s not working.

Instead, ask yourself what else you believe about this person, or yourself, that helps you show up as the leader you want to be. It could be as simple as “It’s my job to nurture their potential.”

3. Adopt a Coach Mindset

Throughout this process, you’ll be offering constructive feedback. They’ll ask questions. They’ll present you with problems to be solved. You’ll be delegating projects that will stretch their comfort level.

A coach mindset is one that helps your people think like leaders. You don’t offer the solutions. You don’t offer drive-by feedback.

You create a safe, two-way dialogue where they find their own solutions.

You offer your observations about performance (positive and negative) and ask for the perspective of the person.

You outline projects, create clear expectations and make time to touch base for support along the way.

This takes time.

And if you’re in back-to-back meetings all day, when will you coach your people? Great people leaders have a people-first mentality and prioritize their calendars accordingly.

4. Consistently Evaluate Together

I want to offer two considerations here. One is about setting growth goals for your people.

As a coach leader, you can offer suggestions on areas for growth based on your employee’s career aspirations. It’s important they decide where to focus first. If you decide for them, they’ll be less connected to the goal.

You may disagree with their prioritization, but the important thing is creating momentum. Your work here is patience, acceptance of their decision, and support.

The second consideration is the evaluation of progress. Ask your employee to set weekly growth goals. This isn’t a PIP. This is helping them keep their goals top of mind. And use your 1-1’s to have them discuss what worked, what didn’t, and what they’ll do differently next time.

5. Treat Them Aspirationally

You know that leader who believed in you, and helped you change the trajectory of your career? They saw your potential and treated you accordingly.

Treat your people as who you believe they can be. Not who they’re being now. When you believe in the vision of who they’re becoming, they believe it too.

Your belief increases theirs. Just as your lack of belief shakes theirs.

Bottom Line: Bottom Line: You set the tone for team’s ability to grow.

If you’re not showing up as the leader who grows people, then you impact your team’s ability to grow. Full stop. This goes for your top performers as well. Think of how much faster they will grow with your attention and support.

If people leadership is a growth edge for you, book a leadership strategy session to discuss how coaching can help.


I have 20+ years working as a leader in the corporate world. I know what you need to do. And I combine that with four years of training as a cognitive behavioral coach. I know how to help you naturally think like the leader you want to be.

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