How to manage difficult employees is a ‘must have’ skill for all managers. A single difficult employee can disrupt your team, create a toxic atmosphere in the workplace, and make you want to tear your hair out in frustration. One person is all that it takes to derail your goals as a manager, so it’s imperative that you learn to manage problematic employees in a way that deflates their power and manages the individual towards a positive solution.
‘Difficult’ employees come in many forms, but whether you’re facing a work-avoider, a victim mentality, a know-it-all or a narcissist, there are management strategies to help you keep your cool and find the best solution.
Strategies for Managing Difficult Employees
1. Actively listen to their point of view.
If you tune out when an employee comes to you with a grievance, you have given yourself literally zero chance of resolving the issue and moving the employee back to focusing on team goals. By listening and engaging with what they have to say, it gives you a valuable perspective on how their mind is operating.
Be grateful that they’re coming to you at all, as it’s certainly a more positive behaviour than workplace subversion and behind-your-back negativity – and it shows that they believe you can help them.
As a manager, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by listening, so when they come to you, ask questions that enable them to give considered answers, and when you speak, be sure to recap what they said so you are both sure that they have been understood.
2. Evaluate the Situation.
Difficult employees will inevitably generate resistance from the team, and as a manager, you will be called to intervene. The cardinal rule is not to allow your preconceptions about the employee to cloud your judgement. Talk to everyone, get the facts. Be dispassionate, and examine your reactions for bias.
Also, consider if there’s something at play that is causing the employee’s outburst/laziness/negativity. Employees don’t just come to work in a vacuum: there are often factors in their personal lives that impact their behaviour at work.
It can also help to bear in mind that most difficult employees are reacting from a place of self-criticism, insecurity or fear, and this is often the case with those employees who put others down to make themselves feel better.
This evaluation exercise is conducted not to excuse their poor behaviour, but merely so you can understand the situation and best tailor your response and support.
3. Record everything.
Write down instances where the employee didn’t meet expectations or caused a ‘situation’ to occur. You should be documenting everything—so that you’ve got a clear record of what happened and therefore you can show the employee the times they’ve not performed to the required standard with precise examples.
4. Be consistent.
You can’t call their behaviour to account only to let the same behaviour slide with someone else in the team. For example, if they’re consistently late, and you reprimand them for it, you also have to reprimand your star player for being late- even if they blitz so many targets that you just don’t really care what time they appear in the office.
Also, you need to pull them up every time they’re late, not just occasionally- and you certainly can’t be late yourself.
Consistency is key when dealing with difficult employees, as they tend to seize on hypocrisy as ammunition and an excuse to ignore your feedback.
5. Make the consequences clear.
When you’re talking to a problematic employee- whether about attitude, tardiness, work ethic, or output- make sure you set a goal for them to reach, and set out clear warnings of what will happen if they don’t reach that target of improvement.
Get them to agree, in writing, to that expectation (and consequence), so that they have ownership of the issue and are very clear on both how to rectify it and what will happen if they don’t.
Remember to follow up. It can be tremendously tempting to just tick the situation off as ‘solved’ once you’ve had the conversation, but it’s not over until you’ve followed up and your expectations have been met.
6. Focus on the positive.
Remember to talk about what the employee is doing well as well as where they’re performing poorly.
This can be a bitter pill to swallow as a manager if this person is toxic, undermining your authority, or disrupting your team’s performance. The thing is difficult behaviour is often an attention-seeking strategy; it’s therefore important to allocate your attention to the good so they know they’ll be recognised for that even if they stop behaving badly. You’re asking them to give up the behaviour that makes them feel unique and strong by rebelling, so you need to replace it with evidence that you’ll also make them feel unique and strong when they do well.
7. Don’t get dragged down by them.
Avoid talking to other employees about ‘the difficult one’- as tempting as it may be. Go home and complain to friends and family if you really need to vent, but to talk about an employee is unprofessional and only creates that awful whisper of doubt in the rest of your team: ‘What about if he/she talks about me that way when I’m not around?’
While following these steps should lead to significant employee improvement, an important skill in being a manager is also knowing when you’ve reached the end of the road. If the difficult employee is unwilling or unable to perform to expectations, you need to act decisively to remove them from your team.
No-one said being a manager was easy, but if you can learn to manage problematic employees your job will become a whole lot easier.
Until next time,