One of the most rewarding aspects of being a manager is seeing your employees succeed and knowing you had something to do with their upward trajectory, even in the smallest way. Conversely, one of the hardest aspects is having to deal with difficult employees—especially those whose performance is laudable but their attitudes leave an awful lot to be desired.
Managing a difficult but productive employee can be infuriating, exasperating, and flat-out tiring. With the right approach, you can turn that problem employee into a team player; however, if you handle the situation incorrectly—or worse, ignore it entirely—that difficult employee can negatively influence your high performers and drain everyone’s patience, time, and morale.
Here are a few things to remember as you help your staff coalesce into a cooperative team working toward common goals.
Listen. We get so caught up in the urgent tasks of today, the pressing needs of others, and planning for the future that we forget to proactively talk to our employees. And by talk, I mean not only asking questions but also proactively listening to the answers.
"Giving honest and effective feedback can be uncomfortable, and it takes some practice to communicate your expectations neutrally ...”So very often, people we’ve pegged as difficult are simply employees with a fixable, temporary problem: Once that issue is resolved, they usually go back to being the high performers they once were, as you’ll find that their concerns are something that you as their manager can fix. Other times, it’s something the employee simply misunderstood and regards as a matter of fact, causing unnecessary tension and more misunderstandings.
A friend of mine recently told me she hadn’t spoken to her boss in six months: She was mad at him and he was mad at her. When they finally broke their silence, he apologized for not reaching out, for not asking what was wrong, and told her it was his fault for not communicating properly. She accepted his apology and told him she had been disengaged for the past six months, which was clear by her sales performance. The next time you come across a difficult employee, reach out, ask questions, and listen to their response to help you understand what the issues are. Be prepared for what they have to say, however, because in order to address their concerns, they have to be honest about the issues—which could make for a difficult conversation. On the other hand, you might be pleasantly surprised that the issue is not only minor but easily fixable.
Communicate Clearly. Other times, a difficult employee is just that: difficult. When faced with this type of situation, it is imperative to communicate expectations clearly, document them, and give that documentation to the employee to ensure everyone is on the same page. Giving honest and effective feedback can be uncomfortable, and it takes some practice to communicate your expectations neutrally rather than attacking your employee personally.
Being thorough—and soliciting a response from the employee in question so you can verify that they’ve truly internalized your concerns—also helps employees understand your expectations and gives them the detailed information they need in order to improve. Ignoring the issues a difficult employee causes can affect your team negatively, but having an honest, one-on-one conversation just may turn this employee around.
Back Up Your Communication with Action. Now that you have communicated your expectations to the difficult employee, you have to back up your words with action. Take this example: Your employee has been using rough language in conversations with clients and you tell them, “If you continue to use inappropriate language and profanity while speaking to clients, I will have to pull you from the phones.” Will you really do that? Can you even do that—do you have enough coverage if you pull this person?
Maybe what you should have said is, “If you continue to use that inappropriate language and profanity while speaking to clients, you will be placed on a performance plan and will be required to attend sensitivity training in order to continue in this role.” As writer Katherine Fugate says, “What we allow will continue. What continues will escalate.”
Plan. But what happens if you listen, you communicate, and you stand behind your communications, and no improvements occur? Now the conversation must get more intense and more detailed, maybe resulting in a written warning to impress the gravity of the situation on the employee. The plan must include steps that need to be taken, expectations clearly defined for the how the behavior must change, and the boundaries to be set. These conversations tend to increase emotions just from the sheer nature of the topic. It’s up to you to maintain your emotions and control any frustrations that may arise.
Although positive thoughts are always more helpful than negative ones, blinding yourself to a situation never solves it.”Manage the Words Inside Your Head. Whether we admit it or not, we all talk to ourselves, whether it’s actually speaking out loud or holding internal conversations, especially when dealing with and preparing for stressful situations. You’ve been dealing with your difficult employee for weeks, which means you’ve probably said things to yourself like, “This guy’s never going to change” or “She’s never going to fit in here” or even “I don’t know why I’m still giving this person so much of my time.”
Thoughts like these are like self-fulfilling prophecies. If you are thinking negatively about the situation, your judgment may be clouded by all the disparaging comments running through your mind. On the flip side, you may be saying, “Everything will turn out fine” or “He’ll figure it out on his own soon.” Although positive thoughts are always more helpful than negative ones, blinding yourself to a situation never solves it.
Instead, tell yourself this: “He’s causing problems for me and my team. I am handling the situation as carefully and optimistically as possible, but should this employee not be open to change, I’ll do what I’ve said I will do to ensure the situation gets rectified.”
At the end of the day, some difficult employees who used to be high performers will not be able to turn it around. Sometimes the bad apple needs to be terminated for the good of the team; however, more often than not, difficult employees just need to be heard, understood, and given specific direction and expectations to bring them to an acceptable performance level. Be confident, be consistent, and communicate often.
Next month, we’ll discuss how to keep your high performers engaged and excited. [CD0419]
Christina Fiorenza is the HR Director for the LMG Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.