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How to Deal With Difficult Employees (+5 Tips)

May 29, 2019

In a perfect world, all of your direct reports would exceed their KPIs and add value to your company culture.

In reality, dealing with difficult employees is par for a manager’s course.

Whether you’re contending with poor performance, bad behavior, or some other issue that has a negative impact, you work overtime to resolve the problem but it feels like nothing gets better. Talk about frustrating. 

A handful of managers can turn the situation around through skill or sheer luck, but many never do—in spite of efforts to improve the employee's experience.

Conventional wisdom dictates that managers should follow the “Golden Rule” when it comes to their team members: Treat others as you wish to be treated. But while being kind and respectful is essential, of course, it’s merely a baseline requirement.

Effective leadership requires a personalized touch. 

One size management does not fit all

I landed my first management job in 2004. I was 23 years old with little career experience and zero management training. Suddenly, I had six direct reports looking to me for guidance and support. My boss at the time was hands-off. He told me, “You’re smart. You’ll figure things out. 

It was a recipe for disaster.

For a while, I skated by on the Golden Rule. But before long, I inherited a difficult employee. This person was capable of doing good work but chose to do the bare minimum. Plus, he communicated with others—including me—in a gruff, terse way.

I began dropping by his desk to see how his day was going, trying to build our relationship.

difficult employee conversation

When he did a good job, I praised him publicly.

I treated him the way I like to be treated.

My attempts to win him over fell flat. Nothing changed for the better. In fact, the more I showered him with positive praise and attention, the more surly his demeanor grew. 

The Golden Rule had failed me so I flipped the script and took stern corrective action: a performance improvement plan. He curbed his bad attitude for 60 days and successfully completed the PIP. But in a wink, we were back to square one.

Managers, get to know what makes your employees tick.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned about the four key factors that determine workplace behavior: 

  • Dominance
  • Extraversion
  • Patience
  • Formality

Everybody has some combination of all four of these factors, which means everyone has a unique behavioral profile, much like a thumbprint. 

I discovered I have a somewhat high amount of the extraversion drive. Boiled down, extraversion is the desire for social interaction. Because of the way I’m “wired” I enjoy it when my boss or a colleague drops by my desk to see how my day is going. I also enjoy receiving public praise (and the inevitable wave of “great job!” comments that follow).

Looking back, my employee likely had a low amount of the extraversion drive. In hindsight, I never should have dropped by his desk to chit-chat; he had no desire for casual, social banter. He might have responded better had I kept our conversations more task-oriented. 

What’s more, I never should have praised him publicly. People with low extraversion prefer private recognition. Showering this employee with compliments in front of his co-workers was ineffective. In all likelihood, it upset him as well. I just didn’t realize it at the time.

One-size-fits-all management short-circuits your leadership potency.

The best business leaders don’t wing it and hope for the best; they’re strategic and intentional in all they do. They recognize that each employee is wired in a different way, and they carve out time to understand individual preferences and tailor their approach accordingly. 

Use a behavioral assessment to measure your employees’ motivating drives and needs. Or, if you don’t have access to this tool, schedule a time to meet 1:1 with each of your direct reports and ask specific questions designed to drill into the core of what drives them.

“How would you feel if I praised you in front of the team?”

This question will give you valuable intel while showing them you care about treating them the way they wish to be treated—even if that differs from your own preferences.

“Which do you value more: independence and autonomy or teamwork and collaboration?”

This question will help you determine dominance. Gaining this awareness can even help you uncover the root of the problem. You might discover an employee is sullen and withdrawn because she’s the only low dominance employee on the team and she struggles to get a word in at meetings. You can improve the situation by encouraging self-awareness across your team and by making sure everyone has an opportunity to be heard—not just the loudest voices.

5 tips for dealing with difficult employees

The first step in managing difficult employees is understanding what drives them and tailoring your management style to their unique behavioral pattern, as described above.

Beyond that, there are several action items you’ll want to accomplish as you work to resolve relations with your problem employees. From performance reviews to constructive feedback, here are five tips:

1. Determine employee cultural fit.

Companies that follow the talent optimization discipline intentionally establish and reinforce their culture so it aligns with their business strategy. That’s because culture is a lever leaders can pull to drive performance. These companies also screen every candidate to ensure culture fit.

If your company doesn’t have an established culture that’s regularly communicated and reinforced—and if it doesn’t have a process for screening candidates for culture fit—your employees may be acting out or underperforming because they feel disconnected to or at odds with the company culture. Connect with a strategic business partner in your human resources department, because this is an issue that the senior leadership team must address.

2. Get obsessed with giving feedback.

Clear, regular feedback is mission critical. People need to know when they’re doing a great job, and they also need to know when they’re missing the mark. Yet some managers rarely give feedback. Others avoid giving negative feedback because conflict makes them uncomfortable.

positive or negative feedbackAs a manager you need to get comfortable with conflict. Healthy conflict is … well … healthy. If you build strong relationships with your employees by keeping your promises and treating them the way they wish to be treated, giving constructive feedback becomes easy.

Always let your employees know you’re in their corner and that you’re being direct because you want them to succeed. Avoid making judgments and generalizations. Give concrete examples and outline steps they should take to improve.

All employees should be getting various forms of feedback:

  • Weekly or bi-weekly check-ins
  • Real-time coaching
  • Quarterly or semi-annual performance reviews
  • 360 reviews
  • Certification or training scores/results
  • Monthly or quarterly personal development

3. Ask for feedback and model best practices for receiving and acting on it.

You should also be soliciting regular feedback from your employees. Don’t be afraid to ask questions like:

“Is there anything I should be doing more of?”

“Is there anything you’d like me to do less of?”

“If we were to do this project again, what might I do different?”

When an employee works up the courage to give you feedback, practice active listening and thank them for their candor. The more you ask for feedback and are receptive to the feedback you get, the more likely it is that your employees will follow suit.

4. Document conversations.

You should be meeting 1:1 with your employees weekly, then emailing them a recap afterwards. While this is a good practice for every employee, it’s an essential practice for difficult employees.

Your documentation serves as a written record you can refer to when giving feedback: “Jim, on April 22, you told me you’d finish the project by the end of the week. Now it’s May 15 and it’s still not complete." 

Also, when you document conversations over time, you have the evidence you need to prove your case should you ever wish to let this person go.

5. Invest in leadership development.

It might seem counterintuitive to invest in developing your difficult employees. However, employee development initiatives are proven to drive performance and engagement.

One way you can develop your difficult employees is to help them gain self-awareness of their behaviors. Perhaps they don’t realize they rub others the wrong way with their constant sarcastic comments. Maybe they had no idea their low performance frustrated their teammates. Utilize a 360 review so they can get an honest look at how they’re perceived by their teammates and other stakeholders in the organization.

Once they’ve had time to process that feedback and build self-awareness, help them create SMART goals for self improvement. Set a concrete timeline and hold them accountable.

Is the person a poor behavioral or cognitive fit for their current role—hence why they struggle to succeed? Perhaps they’d be interested in a lateral move. Connect them with employee training to gain the skills they need to make the jump. That might be the spark that relights their fire.

Whatever you do, don’t take it personally

As a manager with goals to crush and a ton on your plate, a difficult employee can slow you down and force you to expend extra energy and time. You might default to anger, but you’d be better served by curiosity.

Why is this employee disengaged or struggling? Have I been coaching to their preferences? Do I give clear, frequent feedback? Is our company designed to set our employees up for success?

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