Tips for Managing Difficult Employees

tips for managing difficult employees

Dealing with difficult employees is a skill that requires communication skills (both verbal and non-verbal), deep understanding of workplace issues and human psychology, and a willingness to make positive behavioral changes.

Learn Why They Behave “Badly”

We all bring our biases and perspectives to work. More often than not, these intangibles result in differences in the way we work.

In “Taming the Difficult Employee (2002),” Nancy Aldrich reported six types of challenging behavior:

  1. Pessimism or cynicism
  2. Martyrdom or low self-esteem
  3. Complaining
  4. Egotism
  5. Passive-aggressiveness
  6. Hostile-aggressiveness

Most difficult employees manifest multiple types of behavior; don’t judge them too quickly. It takes careful observation to identify what type of employee you’re dealing with.

You can then draw insights from various resources such as books and tailor your solution to a specific employee. You can also seek help from an industrial-organizational or workplace psychologist.

Question Your Approach

Becoming aware of your own behavior is as important as knowing how others contributed to the problem.

When asked what successful people do when facing problems, Professor Chris Argyris, a business theorist at Harvard, presented a cognitive approach called double-loop learning – questioning their approach including their processes, solutions, assumptions and biases.

Instead of completely blaming difficult employees or colleagues, which is less effective according to Professor Argyris’ study, it’s better to look at internal factors and refine your approach. Start by tailoring your communication style or improving your listening and observation skills.

Help Employees Motivate Themselves

Often, difficult employees take up a significant amount of your resources in terms of wasted energy, declining work commitment and high levels of stress.

To remedy this, competitive managers lead difficult employees by helping them motivate themselves. Note that they do not directly try to motivate them by doing pep talks and the like. Instead, they get them energized and committed by creating a workplace that fosters intrinsic motivation.

Nigel Nicholson, an organizational behavior professor and director of the Center for Organizational Research at the London Business School, proposes a demanding yet effective method called “decentering.” It’s difficult because it involves a change in perspective.

“The manager needs to look at the employee not as a problem to be solved but as a person to be understood,” Nicholson wrote.

People’s natural motivational energy is often blocked in the workplace due to a number of factors, including stresses and issues at home. Managers are in a unique position to find out what difficult employees are most likely motivated to do.

Use a Three-Step Process

First, understand where your employee is coming from or what drives or motivates him. What deeply seated biases and assumptions drive such behavior?

Second, understand your own role in the issue. Put simply, you may be the cause of your employee’s lack of motivation. Set yourself as a role model first before you attempt to influence them.

Third, carefully stage a formal conversation with your employee. Once you have all the sufficient data you need for understanding an employee and analyzing the context, it’s time to hold a meeting with your difficult employee on neutral ground.

Here is where you can both reach an agreement or where you can help an employee set a realistic goal. Engage your difficult employee in a conversation without imposing a solution. This isn’t the end of an issue but the start of an ongoing communication.

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