This is a very clever approach to this very old issue in management. Motivation has always been a problem area for every organization and something that every organization has. The author has offered method to hopefully either resolving the issue or find a solution for the problem employee. Getting a resolution does not mean, in the context of this article, as successfully motivating the problem employee. The resolution to the situation could be removal of the employee from the group/team or even dismissal. One important assumption is also that the Manager must satisfy himself/herself that the problem employee is worth the time and effort of being motivated. This is very similar to retaining talented people in another HBR article.
In my work experience I have not come across employer who has the knowledge or skill to motivate people. This is normally left to the middle management not HR department. Most managers however have not been trained in human resources management unless he/she has attended CU EMBA programme. Furthermore these middle level managers also do not have authority in offering incentives such as salary/bonus/stock options etc. Under these circumstances in fact most competent managers I know working for SME have been practicing some of the methods mentioned in this article, i.e. use empathy to understand what caused the deterioration in performance, attitude, work style etc of problem employees. Those are tools to good managers which don’t cost anything to the company. Good managers will have to invest his/her own time in maintaining a sincere friendship with the employee and get to the root of the problem. The downside of this approach, in my experience, is that the manager may still be discouraged and his/her job could not be accomplished even if the cause of the problem is found. There are always constraints imposed by the proprietor of the firm or HR department as to what a division or department manager can do for a problem staff. “Replace him/her if you want to, rules are rules…”, this is what you may get in most cases. Those bosses at a much higher level do not see the need for motivating staff. They don’t consider bending rules to suit some problem staff is necessary. Simply put: you must deliver what I have expected if you want to get paid.
To certain extent I see motivating people is a much larger issue for an organization than the topic of this article. It is about organizational design and a culture of the organization as to how it looks at PEOPLE. It’s easily said that PEOPLE is the most valuable asset but when it comes to difficult decisions about HR policy most proprietor or CEO will react differently. This is not just a cultural issue for an organization but also one for the society. If the business society requires intellectuals (or they are in short supply) and retaining talented staff has drawn sufficient attention of the CEO’s then a HR policy to suit the market environment will be gradually formed. Only when that happens managers down below in the hierarchy could then be equipped with necessary authority and tools (training, e.g. organized/sponsored by the company) to motivate staff. Everybody needs motivation to certain degree, and not just the problem staff, for better productivity.
Alternatively if your company is strong and big enough you could follow GE’s 70-20-10 policy to do staff “housekeeping” by getting rid of 10% “black-sheep” every year. Not every company can afford the underlying costs of what GE is doing however.