Real business story

Radical candour stops challenging situations becoming bigger issues

Managing challenging employees is one of the most daunting parts of being a leader. Employee engagement is easier when things are going swimmingly, but what do you do when there’s an issue?
Helena Hills, TrueStart Coffee

TrueStart Coffee founder Helena Hills has become more confident talking about the elephant in the room

Problematic employees have a direct impact on the bottom line. Toxic behaviour leads to loss of customers and increased staff turnover. It risks damaging your company culture too, so it needs to be taken seriously.

Separating the difficulties from the person helps. Label employees as “challenging” and you risk ignoring company issues and problems with your approach to management.

Radical candour balances challenging and caring

The book Radical Candor helped TrueStart Coffee founder Helena Hills develop her management style. Her intuition was to be too nice to staff, making it difficult to give tough feedback.

“It felt hard and unnatural before. I felt like I either had to be nice and too lenient or come down on them like a ton of bricks. That book was a lightbulb; you can do both,” she said.

Helena describes the approach as challenging directly and caring personally. Instead of relying on verbal agreements, management is open and clear on what they need and what the employee needs.

“We're much more confident in talking about the elephants in a room and saying what needs to be said even when the conversations are difficult. But we do it in a way that it makes it clear that we care. Because we do,” Helena said.

In one example, an employee moved from cafe management to operations. It became clear that they weren’t enjoying the new role and that it didn’t suit their personality. That meant sitting down and having an honest chat about the employee’s future with the company.

“I felt like I either had to be nice and too lenient or come down on them like a ton of bricks. That [Radical Candor] book was a lightbulb; you can do both.”

Helena Hills, founder, TrueStart Coffee

Recruitment problems create employee problems

Recruit too fast and you risk hiring people for roles that aren’t properly developed. That leads to disenfranchisement. It’s a mistake TrueStart Coffee made when it launched and received funding.

Helena said you can split TrueStart Coffee’s approach between the “original mad hustle” of the first three years and and the “rocketship relaunch” since 2018.

They implemented processes like KPIs in the beginning, but because they were creating work to give to people, they kept being changed.

“We've learnt a lot more about what it is reasonable to expect from people. Part of this is because we ourselves have grown up and matured a bit!” Helena said.

Look for opportunities for course correction

Managing challenging staff isn’t always about potential redundancy. In a fast-growing company, roles and responsibilities change quickly. Employers need to make sure that doesn’t create friction.

Helena remembers switching an employee’s focus to 100 per cent new business when they were pushing to win more stockists.

“Within a week, I could see he was miserable as sin. He’d gone from bubbly to miserable. One day he was even a bit late to work and that never happened. It took honesty. If you ignore the fact that he’s not happy, you could miss that and he would eventually disappear” she explained.

It helped to take the employee out of the business to have the conversations, so they went for a walk and discussed the issue. The company goal didn’t change, but the employee’s contribution to it did.

Whatever the issue with a team member, Helena stressed that you have to have the confidence to talk about the elephant in the room. That goes for TrueStart Coffee’s founders, who are married, too.

“All the time, Simon [TrueStart’s COO] and I will say ‘I don’t feel 100 per cent confident’ with a decision we’ve made, ‘we should talk about it’,” she said.

  • location: South West (England)
  • business size: 1-9 People
  • business type: Retail & wholesale

Top three takeaways

Managers can challenge directly and care personally

You have to have the confidence to talk about the elephant in the room

Make sure you’re not creating difficult situations for your employees by hiring for the wrong role