Dear Dr. Graham:

I need to know how to deal with “Moody Melvin,” one of the most talented employees in my organization. Melvin is great to work with 95 percent of the time. The rest of the time his body language is extremely negative, his tone is snippy, and his comments are downright rude. These contrarian spells are disruptive to the entire office. They last anywhere from one day to an entire week.

I have tried everything I can think of to address this issue. I’ve talked with Melvin repeatedly, describing his behavior, asking what is going on, and explaining how his behavior affects others. I’ve tried being warm and caring. I’ve tried being assertive. I’ve provided self-help books. I’ve explained that his attitude is unacceptable and likely to damage his career. After each confrontation he acknowledges his problem and improves temporarily, but eventually he repeats the unacceptable behavior. Our company isn’t large enough to have a formal HR function, so I have to figure out how to handle Melvin on my own.

I like Melvin, and I need his talent. But his moody behavior has got to go! What do I do next? And, “how do I say it” during my next conversation with him?

Overwhelmed Owner

Dear Overwhelmed,

I understand how destructive this type of behavior can be. It only takes one snippy remark or contrarian conversation to deflate a team’s morale. Kudos to you on all the steps you’ve taken so far. You’re doing/have done many of the right things. Here are three additional suggestions that may increase the chances that Melvin will abandon his “contrarian spells.”

1. Provide positive reinforcement when Melvin exhibits behavior you desire. You indicate Melvin is a great employee 95 percent of the time. So, I assume that there are some stressful times when Melvin’s behavior is acceptable. Let him know that you recognize his successes: “Melvin, I know that you’ve been working really hard this week, and I appreciate your professionalism and the positive attitude you’ve modeled. Keep up the good work!” Catching an employee doing something right is not only an effective management technique; it’s also a lot of fun. And, providing positive reinforcement will serve as a counterbalance to the constructive conversations you’ve had to have with Melvin lately.

2. Make sure he experiences true consequences for his behavior. If positive reinforcement doesn’t extinguish Melvin’s offensive behaviors, it is time to identify consequences that may motivate him. An unpleasant conversation with you evidently isn’t enough. I suggest you tell Melvin that if he exhibits this behavior in the future, you will ask him to leave the office and use one of his vacation days to compose himself.

Say something like the following: “It’s part of my job to maintain a healthy and productive work environment. I can’t do that when you are negatively shifting the dynamic. I’m not protecting my employees if I allow you to be snippy, rude or contrarian. We’ve talked about this before, and you’ve acknowledged your behavior as undesirable and unprofessional. By giving you time to collect yourself, I’m hoping we can break this pattern. I need you to find a way to take care of yourself so that this behavior will go away.”

Remember to focus on the behavior and not your assumptions about why it is happening or even his past explanations about it.

I recognize that this suggestion may be unpleasant to execute, but I also know the situation is unlikely to change unless you introduce meaningful consequences. I also suspect that allowing Melvin’s behavior to continue could damage your ability to lead effectively. Employees typically look to a person in your position to curtail difficult behavior. Regardless of the steps you’ve taken that others don’t know about, some are likely to conclude that Melvin is benefitting from preferential treatment if his behavior is allowed to continue without consequence.

2. Provide him with coaching. If it’s within your budget, you should consider finding an executive coach for Melvin. You consider Melvin to be one of your best employees, so coaching is wise investment. His inability to shift his behavior despite the steps you’ve already taken indicates to me that he may benefit from professional support and guidance. You might say to Melvin, “I’m pleased to offer you the opportunity to work with an executive coach. I appreciate your strengths and contributions, and I want to provide you with the tools you need to be successful.”

You have worked hard to establish your organization and your team. I respect your efforts to help this talented employee, and I applaud your efforts to provide a positive workplace for all employees. Balancing these two goals is a real challenge, but I hope the tips above will lead to a less “Moody Melvin” and more “Merry Melvin” very soon.

If you are ready to Lead at a Higher Level, consider joining my Facebook group to interact with me directly. If you know someone in a similar scenario as “Overwhelmed Owner” that could find my suggestions helpful, forward this email to your colleague (Thank you!). You may also submit questions for me to address in future newsletters here.