It has been said that there is no such thing as difficult employees, only ineffective managers, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who believes that’s true. In the end, if people want to be difficult that’s there choice, but recognizing that the way we manage such people is part of the mix here’s a selection of tried and tested techniques:
1. Look for the cause. We don’t generally recruit known cynics or troublemakers, so if someone is proving to be a difficult employee the first step might be to understand what has happened in their view to cause this behaviour.
2. Deal with performance not person. A great trick if you can pull it off and is not easy in emotional situations, but try to deal with what the person does rather than get tangled up in the sort of person they are. The next tip will help.
3. Be descriptive not evaluative. When giving feedback, offer your observations of what actually happened and the consequences rather than judging things as good, bad or otherwise. People can’t argue with the facts but they can argue against your judgements.
4. Don’t comment on attitude. Attitude must be the most subjective term used at work. Every one of us believes that our own attitude is useful and appropriate or we would change it, so telling someone they have the wrong attitude is pointless. Describing what they did and the results that ensued will prove much more productive.
5. Deal with problems while they’re small. If someone does something that irritates you or upsets the team the time to deal with it is there and then. In fairness, people often don’t realism the effects of their actions and unless we point things out, the unhelpful behaviour takes root.
6. Don’t take sides. If a member of your team asks you to deal with a problem with another member of staff say that you’ll look into it and get back to them. Don’t agree that “X is a real problem and we need to straighten him out”. This could come back to haunt you later on and besides you’ll gain more respect from everyone by your professional approach.
7. Deal with things in private. At some stage you and your difficult employee are going to need to have a conversation. This must absolutely be done in private if you’re to have any chance of getting back on an even keel. Many of the previous tips are designed to help you avoid storing things up until you lose your temper and blurt out your frustrations in front of everybody.
8. Consider the wider team. As Mr Spock used to say in Star Trek, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and of the one.” When we have difficulties with one member of staff it can be easy for them to soak up all our energy and attention and neglect our other team members.
9. Don’t sweep problems under the carpet. There’s no point placing the problem person in some half-baked project role or inventing some other non-job to get them out of the way. Small businesses simply can’t accommodate the costs of this tactic and large organizations should think carefully about the messages this sends
10. Be prepared to cut your losses. Robert Holden says that “it’s awful when people quit and go, but it’s worse when they quit and stay!” If somebody really refuses to change their ways despite your best efforts, it may be better for both parties to go their separate ways.
Coach, coach, coach
On a more positive note, why not see if you can turn your problem performers into your stars! Sit down with them and talk about what’s going on. Find out what the problems are and see what can be done. See if you can discover new ways in which they might contribute and even consider offering more responsibility further down the line if things improve. I’ve met many “poachers turned gamekeepers” in my time.