5 Common Employee Sidetracks and How to Manage Them

It's Easy to Get Sidetracked at Work

To this day, I think of a former colleague whenever someone mentions dental work or a needed auto repair. I recall talking with her a few years back about taking my car into the shop for a 30,000-mile check and new brakes. I wondered aloud what else I might need and how much it would cost. She quipped, “Teeth and cars. When’s there’s a problem it’s never any fun.”

I can think of a few managers who might like to add employee problems to root canals and worn-out brakes. Let’s face it. Dealing with performance issues and poor work habits may come with the job, but it’s never fun. And, it’s even more challenging when we get sidetracked. This is where more in depth management training comes in.

What is a sidetrack?

A sidetrack is an attempt to divert a discussion away from the problem. During a performance improvement discussion an employee’s natural defense mechanism can sabotage a manager’s best efforts. That is, unless the manager is prepared.

The 5 most common sidetracks

1. The Self-Inflicted Wound

The “woe is me… I am not worthy” response to your performance discussion can easily deflate and derail your best intentions. A self-inflicted wound sidetrack is particularly difficult to identify when you truly like the employee. Check out this example.

Manager: Tim, I found two receiving errors.

Employee: Listen, I’m really sorry. I know I don’t deserve another chance. It’s just that I have so much on my mind. The divorce. The kids. Did I tell you she’s fighting me on the kids now?

The easiest way to get back on track from this sidetrack is to use the words “right now” and repeat the problem behavior. For example:

Employee: Did I tell you she’s fighting me on the kids now?

Manager: I'm sorry to hear that, Tim. Right now, we need to talk about the two receiving errors I found.

But, until you get more adept at recognizing the sidetrack as it happens, the conversation usually gets off track and then you need to reign it in.  As I write this, my time as a training manager comes to mind. I remember one employee who was expert at this sidetrack. Her roommate left her in the lurch. Her car was always breaking down. The bus was unreliable. It was always one personal problem after another. And, I felt for her. I did. But, I wasn’t doing her any favors going easy on her, and doing so would send the wrong message to the rest of the staff.

When I got thrown off topic, I learned to get back on track as soon as I could. I would hold up my hand and interrupt her justifications. Then, I would try to get the conversation back to the performance issue. Let's look at the previous example again.

Employee: Did I tell you she’s fighting me on the kids now?

Manager: Your kids have been through so much already. How are they handling it?

Employee: Well, Cassie is having trouble sleeping. And…

Manager (interrupting): You know what Tim? We’re going to have to talk another time about this. Right now, we need to talk about the two receiving errors I found.

2. The Blame

This sidetrack pushes attention off the problem and the employee and onto something else. It’s a defense mechanism that blames circumstances or other people so employees can avoid taking responsibility themselves. It looks something like this:

Manager: Jack, this is the second time this week you’ve been late.

Employee: I know. I’m sorry. But it wasn’t my fault this time. Andy changed the schedule Friday and didn’t tell me my shift had changed.

This sidetrack can be subtle because it may feel as if you are still talking about the problem. In reality, shifting blame makes this someone else’s problem. In this instance, the key to redirecting is putting the problem back into the employee’s hands by addressing the sidetrack head-on and using the words “right now” to transition back to the topic.

Manager: Right now, we’re talking about you, not Andy. This is the second time this week you’ve been late.

3. The Stall

This sidetrack can catch even the most experienced managers off guard. Because it sounds like agreement, the performance improvement conversation may be a distant memory before you realize what happened. Look at these employee statements:

  • Okay. I’ll work on it.
  • You’re right. I’ll keep that in mind next time.
  • Sorry. It won’t happen again.
  • Oh. I see. Yea. Okay. From now on, I’ll pay more attention.

In general terms, the employee has expressed agreement. But, has the employee agreed that a performance problem exists? Has the employee agreed to a specific solution?

Unless you push to get agreement that a problem exists and seek a solution together, this sidetrack will end the conversation, which is exactly what the employee wants. The conversation ends before you can have meaningful dialogue about the poor performance or the unacceptable work habit. To redirect a stall, the direct approach is best. Consider these manager redirects to get back on track after The Stall:

  • Do you agree that this is a problem?
  • What are you going to do differently next time?
  • What specifically are you going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

4. The Guilt Trip

This sidetrack is all about making you feel bad. The guilt trip sidetrack transfers the focus from the employee to you and puts the employee on the offense and you on the defense. Before you know it, you’re defending yourself and your employee and the performance problem are no longer the topic of discussion.

Manager: I’ve noticed that some of the rooms on 12 haven’t been cleaned yet.

Employee: I always try so hard but it’s never good enough for you. You never notice what I do right. Only how I could have done something better. What about all the rooms I did finish?

The trick to redirecting this sidetrack is to quell your own emotions and restate the problem, adding specifics, if possible. The words “right now” also work well with this sidetrack to get the conversation back on track. Consider this example:

Right now, we’re talking about the rooms on 12 that aren’t ready for guests even though it’s 4:00.

5. The Attack

This sidetrack rears its ugly head in anger. As the name suggests, the employee verbally attacks you by lashing out at you or your management style. This defense mechanism is designed to clearly shift the focus to you.

Manager: Mike, I don’t have your report yet. This is the second time this month you finished your report late.

Employee: Well, maybe if you came out of your office once in awhile, you would have known how far behind I was. You would know that I still don’t have the figures from Jan to complete Section IV.

The desire to lash back is what makes this sidetrack so effective. If you don’t have the restraint necessary to ignore the emotions of this sidetrack, you won’t be able to effectively redirect. The only way to redirect The Attack is to take a deep breath and focus on the employee. Try not to take the remarks personally. There will be time later to think about your employee’s words and whether there is any truth to them. And, even if there is, they don’t have anything to do with the performance problem.

Again, the words “right now” will help you refocus the discussion.

Right now, we’re talking about you. The report was due yesterday and it was your responsibility to finish it on time.

It's important to be mindful of timing...

Sidetracks generally show up immediately after you state the problem behavior. But, they can also creep in toward the end of a performance improvement discussion as you try to get the employee to agree to a specific solution. In particular, employees may try to sidetrack you with The Stall in order to avoid commitment. If you feel yourself pulled, transition the conversation back using the word, “so.”

  • So, what specifically will you do on Friday when you receive our next shipment to avoid these kinds of mistakes?
  • So, what specifically are you going to do to make sure you aren’t late again?
  • So, what are you going to do differently tomorrow to ensure that all our rooms are clean and available to our guests for a 3:00 check-in?
  • So, what specifically are you going to do to make sure your report is on my desk when it’s due?

And, lest you think sidetracks are a defense mechanism unique to the employee population, think again. Sidetracks are part of our natural fight or flight response. In addition to many employees, I’ve seen children and adults employ them quite effectively. I’m sure I’ve done so from time to time as well. And, perhaps you have too.

About the Author

Michele Chiarella is Atana's Senior Learning Experience Designer and lead script writer.

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