Defuse Loose Cannons

AS AN EXECUTIVE coach/consultant, I commonly get calls like the one I got last week from an HR professional who, along with the company CEO, was looking for help with a valued employee also considered a loose cannon. These “problem employees” can be a huge challenge and risk to companies. Why? Loose cannons can and do sink ships. Though often these individuals are uniquely qualified super “executors” who get results, many also leave a wake of disruption behind them in accomplishing their objectives. This leaves management with a tough decision, contemplating if the pain is worth the gain.

Many of these exceptional performers have extraordinary technical or execution skills, but are unfortunately significantly deficient in interpersonal or emotional intelligence. Many are blind to how they are perceived by others and often have no idea how close they are to losing their jobs.

According to the Collins dictionary, a loose cannon is “a person or thing, with the potential to cause considerable damage, that appears to be out of control.” Allowing loose cannons to run amuck is risky business. Unchecked, their erratic behavior can cause other valued employees (and clients/customers) to leave. They often negatively affect morale and the performance of others — all of which leaves senior executives evaluating options and desperate for help.

The good news is that these situations are frequently recoverable, but only with the right boss approach and the right help for the employee. A change in behavior is often required from both.

If you are the boss, what can be done to save your loose cannon from sinking your ship?

1. Deal with it. These scenarios have a tendency to only get worse, and their impact on the organization frequently runs deeper than is apparent. Develop an appropriate plan to address the problem employee.

2. Remain composed and calm. Loosing your cool will only inflame an already potentially explosive situation (modeling good behavior is important).

3. Give feedback that cannot be misunderstood. Focus on the behavior instead of making it “personal.” Avoid generalizations such as, “You are unprofessional.” There are many possible interpretations of a word like “unprofessional.” Specify acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Enlighten them about how their behavior is causing a problem for others.

4. Be prepared to follow through. As the boss, you are ultimately responsible for maintaining a safe work environment. You need to be able (and willing) to let go of any employee who is abusive or putting others (or your business) at risk. As the boss, if you can’t draw a line, you are likely part of the problem. Managers often have difficulty standing their ground or being assertive; however, most can’t afford not to deal with this. The decision to terminate a valued but troubled employee is a major decision. Get help to work on your ability to be assertive and increase your authority.

5. Get expert help for the loose cannon. It’s important for the employee to understand he is valued and you are willing to invest in him. Expert coaches who specialize in emotional intelligence can help individuals identify tendencies and problematic behaviors and learn new behaviors. They are trained to act as a mirror for their clients so they can become more self-aware. They provide continual focus, support, practice and feedback in a safe environment. Internal HR professionals are often ineffective in these scenarios because they can be viewed as the company stool pigeon or someone who can get the individual fired. In contrast, an outside coach is viewed as an impartial, nonthreatening partner to help them through a difficult situation.

The challenge in these scenarios is closing the gap between the loose cannon and the boss. It’s not uncommon for me to discover that bosses unwittingly have set up a systemic dynamic that is part of the problem. Often roles and expectations haven’t been clearly defined, which is a catalyst for blow-ups between the “problem” employee and others. The good news is there is help.

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