Act Swiftly With Malcontents

This is eighth of several blogs delving into the origin and meaning of my sales leadership “Words of Wisdom”. You can access the complete list here

A sales leader is almost always dealing with a non-performer, malcontent, or both. Due to the high likelihood of occurrence, a sales leader must learn to identify and rectify these situations – quickly and effectively.

My previous blog described the perils of trying to “save” non-performers.

Now let’s turn our attention to malcontents.

Malcontent employees are easy to spot. Every organization has them at one time or another. In fact some organizations are filled to the brim with malcontents. Go look at Glassdoor for examples.

Malcontents are complainers, naysayers, disrupters, and/or just plain jerks. Sometimes they are characterized as disgruntled employees.

I’m not implying that employees don’t have a right to complain, question, or disagree with a leader. In fact, this type of behavior is prevalent and can be highly productive in high performing sales organizations.

Malcontents complain, question, disagree in a non-professional manner. They don’t take ownership and/or bring solutions. Most concerning is the public aspect of their behavior – malcontents have a need to share their misery and, in turn, disrupt and distract the team.

How should a sales leader handle a malcontent?

Key #1 is to be professional, thoughtful and non-emotional about the situation. Understand why the person is acting this way. Was it triggered by some internal decision that impacted them directly or indirectly? Do they have issues in their personal life? Is the behavior a symptom of their own non-performance? Did YOU do something that lessened their trust/respect for you? Are they in a state of no return or is there an opportunity to get them back in the fold? If they exit the organization, what is the impact?

Key #2 is clearly defining the boundaries and the consequences of stepping outside the lines. This needs to be a direct conversation AND put in writing. Get HR involved in the planning and as a participant in the conversation with the malcontent.

Similar to dealing with a non-performer, the ownership on the outcome should sit squarely on the shoulders of the malcontent. Once the direct conversation has occurred, a sales leader should invest minimal effort in the situation – only acting when the boundaries are crossed and the consequences need to be enforced.

The most important key is #3 – acting swiftly. And by swiftly I mean immediately. EVERYONE will be watching to see how you handle the situation. Hesitation may result in an erosion of confidence and respect from your team, your peers, and your boss.

What if the malcontent is also your top performer?

A tough situation that needs to be handled similar to that described above with a few exceptions.

More attention needs to be given to the impact of them leaving the organization – directly and indirectly.

The obvious place to measure impact is the direct loss of contribution to quota. I find that most of the time, sales leaders over-estimate the potential loss of a top performer. In the short term, this person’s deals and territory can be absorbed by other people on the team (including the sales leader). If the sales leader is on top of capacity planning and the development of new team members, the longer term effect should be minimal.

Malcontents, even a top performing ones, have a negative impact on the organization.They spread fear, uncertainty and doubt. Their behavior distracts and defocuses team members resulting in a lack of motivation and productivity. I’ve observed in several occasions the removal of a top performer resulting in a huge improvement in overall team morale and productivity – both in the short and long term.

Executed swiftly and properly, a sales leader can turn a malcontent situation into a win-win-win.

Addressing the situation head on is best for everyone – you, your team, and the malcontent. The direct approach will quickly reduce the noise for your team and enhance your reputation as an action-oriented leader. The malcontent will have a choice of two good outcomes; 1. Resolve their internal conflicts and return to being a productive member of the team or 2. Exit the company and find a situation that’s more aligned to their desires.

Final thoughts…I’ve seen sales leaders “held hostage” by high performing malcontents…a REALLY BAD place to be that never ends well for all involved.

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