How to Deal With, Manage & Lead Difficult Employees

Aug 31 2023 | Perspectives
Woman standing in an office space with employees sat around her.

Dealing with difficult employees is something every manager will have to face at some point in their leadership career. As a new manager, it might be a little more challenging when you are faced with a difficult employee, however this challenge isn’t just met by newcomers. Even established leaders can find it difficult to handle. We’ve put together some tips and tricks on how to deal with difficult employees as a manager or leader in the workplace, so that you can continue to effectively lead and manage without disruption.

What might a difficult employee look like?

Establishing what a difficult employee ‘looks like’ can be hard. There’s not a one size fits all definition because, just like we all work in different ways, difficulties arise in several forms. So, what could these difficulties reveal themselves as? Let’s take a look.

  • Someone who is unprofessional.

  • An individual who is unpleasant, with a bad attitude.

  • Someone who induces unnecessary stress on to others.

  • Someone who can make others uncomfortable with opinions or behaviours.

  • A person who undermines authority.

  • A person who is lazy.

  • Someone who brings about conflict easily.

  • An individual who performs poorly.

These difficulties don’t need to be disruptive if dealt with in the right manner.

Solutions for dealing with difficult employees

Just like all difficult situations are different, how you deal with difficult employees and these situations are also very different. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all guide. But we have put together some tips to help managers and leaders deal with these individuals effectively, to avoid distraction and conflict.

  1. Focus on behaviour not personality.

  2. Understand the root cause of the behaviour.

  3. Ask for feedback.

  4. Establish authority, provide feedback, and outline your expectations.

  5. Establish consequences.

  6. Monitor performance and progress.

  7. Stay calm and be respectful.

  8. Be proactive.

  9. Talk to HR when necessary.

  10. Know when it’s time to let go.

So, let’s take a deeper look into these solutions for dealing with difficult employees.

Focus on behaviour not personality

Ensuring that as a manager you’re assessing an individual’s behaviour in the workplace, and not simply judging their personality, is key. Critiquing an individual’s personality as a leader is more likely to create more conflict than resolve any behavioural issues. Even when employees’ actions are difficult, your role is to support them and find solutions to these behavioural problems.

If you’re judging their personality, there is most likely very little behavioural issue actually in play. If you do find that personal factors are affecting their behaviour, provide them with feedback in a respectful manner, with the focus of improving their performance at work.

Understand the root cause of the behaviour

Simply masking the problems isn’t going to be an effective way of dealing with difficult employees at work. As a manager, you need to really understand the root of the problem and look for the cause. Every individual’s situation is different, and their behaviour might be affected by unique circumstances. Understanding these and supporting employees through these can help to resolve difficulties at work.

Ask for feedback

Sometimes, problematic behaviour might be caused by an employee’s own unhappiness within the company. So, when understanding how to manage difficult employees, know how to be open to their feedback and try to create a safe space where they can share this.

Establish authority, provide feedback, and outline your expectations

When dealing with difficult employees, it’s important to establish yourself as the authority to avoid those individuals undermining it. In doing so, give your own feedback on their behaviour and performance and set your expectations as to what they need to do to improve the situation. Whilst being stern is important, when necessary, try to keep this respectful and refined – if you give respect, you’re far more likely to command it back.

Establishing your expectations also helps to give the employee a plan – the clearer you make your expectations, the more likely they are to take them seriously and strive for change.

Establish consequences

Just like establishing your expectations, when learning how to lead difficult employees establish consequences for these difficult behaviours if you really need to. Understanding that there will be consequences to their actions can give them the push they need to change their behaviour. If consequences aren’t set, they may feel as though they can get away with continuing to behave improperly.

Monitor performance and progress

After establishing your expectations and actioning a plan for behavioural change, monitor employee progress and performance to see how they’re doing and what actions they’ve made to change their behaviour. This may include introducing regular 1:1s with this person, getting feedback from their co-workers, and evaluating the quality of their work.

Stay calm and be respectful

Being neutral in these circumstances is key to making good judgements. So, try to stay calm, supportive, and respectful no matter how frustrating their actions may become. Ensure you’re focusing on the facts and avoid judging the individual.

Be proactive

As a leader, planning ahead is really important to avoid difficult employees. This planning starts at the hiring process, and trying to understand behaviours during the recruitment process is key to avoid hiring someone who is going to be challenging and has a potential to cause problems for you and the company as a whole. Think about introducing behavioural interviews in the selection process for example.

Talk to HR when necessary

HR are professionals in managing people, so involving them means they can take some of the stress in dealing with difficult employees. They can confidently implement any company policies, and have the experience in handling difficult conversations that, especially as a new manager, you might not. Involving HR also just provides you with support if you need it.

Know when it’s time to let go

Being in any leadership position gives you the responsibility to invest in your employees and try to support them as much as possible. However, know when to let go – sometimes, you’ve tried everything, and there’s nothing else you can do. Some individuals just don’t fit within a particular job role, team, or culture, so sometimes you may need to make a call to let that individual go.

Why is it important to deal with difficult employees?

An employee’s difficult behaviour can affect their productivity and performance, as well as having a negative impact on their co-workers around them too. This can have serious repercussions for the business as a whole, so it’s really important to deal with difficult employees efficiently to avoid serious damage.

In effectively dealing with these situations, you can prevent unnecessary conflict, employee or team discomfort, client dissatisfaction, decreased performance and productivity, and even staff turnover. So, it’s a really important skill to have as a leader.

If you’re looking for more tips to dealing with difficult employees, or management as a whole, why not invest in a coach?

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