When does a personality quirk become a productivity issue?

Just because an employee isn't breaking any rules from the company handbook doesn't mean he or she isn't causing problems with the team. Keep an eye out and fix small problems before they spread.

I once knew a fellow manager who was notorious for talking a lot. He monopolized large portions of meetings with his pedantic updates, which were meant, I suppose, to draw attention to his work performance. If you had contact with him outside meetings, you knew that a good portion of your time would be eaten up.

Our boss was reluctant to bring this particular issue to the guy's attention because it would involve criticizing part of his personality, something he may or may not be able to control or correct. It's one thing to point out a problem with an employee's work pattern, like excessive lateness, and quite another to tell him he's just plain annoying.

So management balked and the behavior continued. Of course, this caused a lot of discomfort among the rest of the staff. When necessary, we devised covert ways to get relevant info back and forth to Mr. Talker without having to actually speak to him in person. We'd wait until he left his office to call and leave voice mail. Or we'd write e-mail, click Send, and then dash out the door before he could come by our offices to "clarify."

One might say this was a small personality quirk that just caused a few adjustments in communication, but that's not exactly accurate. Think of the cumulative time, energy, and productivity wasted in these simple acts of avoidance.

Any time you have impaired communication on a team, productivity will take a hit. So the question is, when is a personality quirk just a quirk and when does it become a true impediment to productivity? And just what can a manager do about it?

In a recent TechRepublic discussion, a member described another type of "personality quirk" that affected one of his direct reports and, consequently, his team. It seems that he manages a fairly small IT team that's pretty laid back. But one member of the team can get very frustrated when something doesn't work the first time. If faced with a problem, he starts stomping around the office complaining that the day will be downhill from there.

When this happens, the manager tries to appease him by showing him that it was no big problem in the first place. He's generally able to calm him down and he's back to his "cheerful" self before long. Unfortunately, by that time he has disrupted everyone else.

So we have two types of employee quirks. The question is when do these types of things go from being small issues to bigger team problems? The answer: If your people have to get from step A to step B by means of step C, you've got a problem. If they have to spend extra time or energy to get around a bump in the work landscape, you've got some pruning to do. But how do you take care of the problem?

First, pay attention. Your staff may not feel comfortable coming to you to complain about a fellow employee's shortcomings unless it's a case of that person's outright incompetence causing important projects to fail. You may have to depend on interpreting non-verbal cues during staff interactions and meetings.

In the case of Mr. Talker: Does one person seem to talk more than the others? If so, ask yourself if your work culture breeds competition in some way. Does the person have reason to become defensive about his status in the company? Is the information he's offering something you really need to know, or just something he's using to build a case for himself? Watch the faces of others in the room. It's pretty easy to tell the difference between active, interested listening and the "faraway" expressions of the terminally bored. Do you find yourself dreading the moment when the guy starts talking?

In the case of the stomper: Erratic and excessive behavior like this can be construed as hostile by other staff members, even if it's not directed at them. Some people, laid back or not, don't respond well to the kind of atmosphere created by histrionics and unpredictable behavior. Just think of the effect this behavior would have if a customer witnessed it. You already are aware that this is not normal behavior. It's time to act.

The treatment
The talker
Something you never hear when you're striving for that management position is how difficult some personnel issues can be. No one ever tells you that one day, for example, you may be faced with telling an employee that her personal hygiene is unacceptable; or that you may have to explain to a staff member why he has to take down the decorative noose he has hanging in his office (true story); or, in this case, that you'll have to tell an employee that his apparent infatuation with his own voice is driving your team to madness. But it's still your job to take care of it.

Schedule a meeting with the person. Take time to find out what he's working on and tell him you appreciate the work he's doing—if that's actually the case. Then gently explain that the purpose of your staff meetings is to briefly catch up with everyone and that you've noticed his updates take a little bit longer than everyone else's. Ask him if he's feeling insecure about his status in the company. If he is, talk to him honestly and put any of his concerns to rest. Then, tell him it would help the meetings move along if he could keep his descriptions more succinct. Reiterate your satisfaction with his work progress otherwise.

Just a warning: I'll tell you right now that if my boss ever had to have that conversation with me, I would be so embarrassed that I would never open my mouth again. But be prepared if your words don't seem to make a difference to this person. He may simply be unable to alter this portion of his personality. He may change his ways for a while but then gradually fall back into his pattern. At that point, you may have to make it an issue in his performance reviews.

The stomper
Many of those who responded to this discussion posting thought that the employee just needed some help and encouragement. Point him toward some thinking techniques. Teach him how to take disappointment. However, others said that that very help and encouragement, if not tempered with some realistic advice, would do no good.

TechRepublic member jellybeenz summed it up best in his advice to the original poster: "It seems as though this employee needs to understand that there are limits to what type of behavior will be tolerated. You can foster an informal and friendly atmosphere while ensuring that your staff maintains a professional demeanor. If you allow this to continue, you are essentially condoning his actions. Also, he is receiving positive attention from the authority figure on the team whenever he throws a tantrum. That is not an inducement for him to stop."

The answer may be in the timing, according to OzMedia: "Try the positive reinforcement at unusual times, instead of as a Band-Aid. While having coffee, you can say 'You really helped the team with your professional approach to some of these issues that would have most people frustrated and ranting. How do you keep so cool?' He will soon see his own actions as a negative and adjust his attitude to fit your opinion of him."

Just because an employee is not breaking any employee handbook rules doesn't mean that he or she isn't practicing some kind of behavior that affects productivity. Keep an eye out for these types of problems and take action as soon as possible.

By Toni Bowers

Toni Bowers is the former Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.