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The Y Model: Changing Entrenched Employee Behavior

Author: Karen Alary
September, 2016 Issue

Saying “I have to share some of the responsibility here,” can be a very powerful statement.

After many years working in human resources, the number one question I get is still: “How do I deal with difficult employee performance issues?”

In a perfect work world, managing performance is a basic, everyday part of a supervisor’s job. Employees are clear on what’s expected of them, coaching and feedback occur routinely and employees receive ongoing training and development. They’re held accountable and are recognized for their results.

But, it’s not a perfect work world. Supervisors often find themselves in situations where performance issues haven’t been dealt with and an employee has essentially “gotten away with” bad behavior for a long time, negatively impacting everyone involved, including your customers.

Many managers assume it’s too late to do anything about the employee. Others go to the opposite extreme, and want to terminate the employee. The best solution lies between those two extremes and starts with the letter Y. 

The Y Model

Years ago, I was helping a very discouraged manager develop a strategy for a long-term employee situation that he’d (unfortunately) ignored. As we discussed options, the answer appeared in a “doodle” on my notes. In that moment, the Y Model was born.

Picture a capital “Y.” The employee (and their difficult behavior) has been traveling from the bottom of the Y, not being held accountable. As I explained to the supervisor that day (and to many others since then), they’re now at the intersection in the middle of the Y—the crossroads. The supervisor now must commit to the fact that there are only two directions the employee can go. They can go up one side of the Y, with the employee successfully changing their behavior, or the employee can go up the other side (by not changing their behavior), which could eventually lead to the employee’s “exit” from the position. The important thing is that the supervisor (and, ultimately, the employee) is clear that continuing on the original path isn’t an option.

The next critical piece is communication with the employee, including clear and direct feedback about the unacceptable behavior and expectations about what needs to change. We don’t recommend sharing the Y Model with the employee. It’s meant as a tool and mindset for the supervisor. And we generally don’t recommend disciplinary action in these situations, since the employee hasn’t been given the benefit of ongoing feedback. Instead, the goal of the employee meeting is to have clear two-way communication and to provide ongoing expectations. Think of it as a “reset” with the employee.

The employee meeting

The first step is preparation. Ask yourself: What is the performance issue? Why is it a problem? Who and what is it impacting? What information do you need from the employee? What’s the desired result? What’s your strategy? How do you expect the employee to respond? What resources and support are available? What’s your follow-up plan?

During the meeting, provide clear feedback and include specific examples. Describe the impact of the performance, on you, the employee, coworkers, customers and others. Make sure the employee understands your expectations and proposed next steps. Ask for the employee’s perspective, including what resources and support they need—and, be willing to share the responsibility: Saying “I have to share some of the responsibility here; I’ve been frustrated about this for a long time but have not talked to you about it,” can be a very powerful statement.

It’s critical to stay on message, no matter the reaction. If the employee is visibly upset, offer them a tissue and some time to compose themselves. Make sure to keep control of the meeting. Hear what they have to say but also hold them accountable for respectful behavior. It’s also important to hold yourself accountable for that same respectful behavior.


Once the employee meeting is complete, it can be tempting to breathe a sigh of relief and go back to business as usual. It’s very important to hold both the employee and yourself accountable for the actions discussed in the meeting. Recognize progress and deal with any ongoing issues. Move to disciplinary action if it’s warranted, and document all interactions.

By following the suggestions in this article, including clear communication and accountability, difficult situations will often lead to valuable, productive, appreciative and committed team members for your organization.

Karen Alary is Managing Partner at The Personnel Perspective, a management consulting firm based in Santa Rosa, California, specializing in human resources, management training, and recruiting.  The firm’s core belief is that a company achieves organizational excellence through its people.  Her company works with organizations of all sizes and industries to hire key employees, retain and motivate them, build a unique culture and organization, and ensure that HR systems are in place to support the organization and the people today and into the future. Learn more by visiting or calling 707-576-7653.




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