Managing difficult employees is hard work as a manager. Take a look at 5 tried and tested steps to make managing a difficult employee a lot easier.
Dealing with poor attitudes, disruptive behaviour or poor quality work is emotionally and energy draining. Even worse is when you have an employee that performs the work very well yet is a nightmare to manage or is disruptive to the other team members.
The worst thing that you can do as a manger is “do nothing”.
As hard as it might be to manage the difficult employee, you must deal with them in such a way that the problematic issues stop.
I have been managing teams for 25 years in corporates to SMEs, dramatically turned around the performance of multiple teams and have won Best Team prizes. I learnt the hard way, early on, that procrastination is the worst option.
So you know you have to take action. The next question is what will you do? Below I set out 5 steps that will make the action you take effective and fair.
Why being fair is important!
A person has been making your life difficult. Why be fair to them when they are not being fair to you?
Learn your way:
Every member of team will know that a person is being difficult. They have to work with them too. The other team members are looking to you to make everyone’s life easier. And they are watching how you do this because if you are heavy handed, a bully or unfair to that person, they will be wondering “Am I next?”
To keep the rest of the team engaged and motivated, you must deal with the difficult person fairly. This is important. And this will take extra effort on your part.
But what you get back from the wider team is very worth every second of this investment!
Step 1: Find out why the employee is being difficult
There are lots of reasons why employees are difficult. Find out why they are behaving in the way that is being difficult. Knowing what is causing the behaviour gives you a much better chance of dealing with it effectively and changing the behaviour.
Ask the individual. Ask the other team members. And listen to what you are told.
Some of the reasons for difficult behaviour might include:
- They are struggling and need help but are too afraid to ask or don’t know how to ask for help.
- They may not like you or other team members on a personal level.
- They are not clear on what is expected of them.
- They don’t feel valued or appreciated.
- They may be out of their depth. The demands of the job are above what they can deliver against. They either don’t have the will or capability to bridge the gap by learning new skills or approaches.
- They have a poor attitude, need attention or have other personal challenges.
Each of the above “problems” has to be dealt with. Some are easy, some are hard.
In my experience of dealing with many “difficult” employees, the performance or “difficultness” can be turned around fairly quickly in most but not all cases.
It is often in your interests and the business’s interests to improve the performance of the employee rather than replace that employee where this is possible and sustainable. Recruiting and training a new person is disruptive, time consuming and expensive.
Of course it can be a lot more expensive to keep an employee that is disruptive or performing poorly and will not or cannot improve. If you face this situation you much take action.
Step 2. Set expectations clearly when you manage a difficult employee.
Setting expectations is so important yet many managers don’t do this effectively or clearly.
The British style or culture is traditionally not one of straight talking or telling it how it is. We are usually very nice and polite, talking around the subject rather than getting to the heart of the matter.
If an employee does not know what is expected of them, how can they meet those expectations.
So the second step in managing a difficult employee is being really clear as to what you expect of them.
Write your expectations down. This will get them clear in your own mind first. Then set milestones and goals against each expectation. How will you know, and how will the individual know when the goal or behaviour has been met?
If this is not clear, then keep going back to the drawing board until it is.
A good exercise is to formulate and agree the milestones and goals with the person. This makes the goals joint goals rather than your goals imposed on them. They are much more likely to own joint goals. And it if fine to discuss the goals until both parties are happy.
Set and agree the goals before doing anything else. Put them in writing and share this document with the employee.
Step 3. Coach the employee to give them every change of improving their performance and approach.
Next, support the individual to help them meet the goals that you have set with regular or weekly one-to-one meetings. Use these meeting to mentor or coach the individual on how they can and are going to improve the “difficult” aspects of their performance.
Tasks and technical knowledge are easier to improve than behavioural aspects in most cases.
Share your experiences and approaches with the individual. If you are not the expert on a particular area, then find someone who is.
By mentoring or coaching the individual, you are going to find out very quickly what their capability is and how willing they are to improve. And you are doing this while genuinely trying to help them.
If they are willing, you have a lot that you can work with. If they are not willing, then you may not get past go.
Take a look at yourself too.
Ask yourself “are you genuinely trying to help them” or are you just going through the motions. The employee will work out which it is very quickly. If you are not willingly, how can you expect them to be. I have coached many managers and leaders where a good part of the “problem” sits with the manager.
Step 4. When you manage a difficult employee it is vital that you give honest feedback
Feedback is incredibly important to improve performance. Serious athletes get coaches so they can get feedback – the good and the bad. In the business world we are not as lucky. Useful feedback is harder to get yet remains just as valuable.
Give feedback to the individual so they know what they are doing well and what they still need to improve. Giving praise is powerful and is not done enough in the business world. Make sure you take the time to praise what is going well.
When giving feedback for the areas that need improvement, help the individual understand what good looks like and the steps they can take to get them there.
At least once per month, you should review the milestones and goals set out in your written document with the employee. Agree which areas are meeting standards and which are not. This ensures no “surprises” for the employee and makes the process fair to the employee.
Step 5. Take action – do not allow the status quo with difficult employees to continue
Each of the above four steps – finding out the problems, setting expectations, coaching, and providing feedback – are each actions in themselves.
What happens next?
We will consider three scenarios covering the likely range of possibilities. There are of course many scenarios in between these so adapt according to the situation and the individual.
In the scenario that the individual improves the areas that you have targeted, you need to ensure that this improved level of performance or behaviour continues consistently going forward. Continue one-to-one meetings focused on you coaching or mentoring the individual is a good way to achieve this.
Remember, as a team you will get better results by developing, mentoring, and coaching the star performer rather than the weaker members. i.e. playing to strengths. The overall team performance is likely to benefit from a sustained mentoring or coaching approach to all members. Just apportion your time for the best results for the team overall
Individual has the will but struggles with the capability.
The individual is willing and has put in lots of effort to improve their skills or approach, yet their overall performance is not improving or not improving fast enough. You are concerned about the capability of the person to do the job.
You need to decide if you are happy with this person in the role or if the person will be better off in another role.
If you decide, or together you decide, that another role is the better option for both parties, then help the individual with an internal move. If an external move is the only practical option, then make this as easy as possible for the individual. You never know when they might help you in return.
The Individual is not willing
For whatever reason, you have worked hard to help the individual, but they have chosen not to rise to the occasion, then it is likely that both parties will be better off parting ways. Whatever you decide the most appropriate route is, make sure that the individual is moved on from your team and the company.
Unwilling staff members will not help the team overall achieve its goals and that person is likely to be happier elsewhere. Do not procrastinate on taking fair and sensible action.
You will be in the best place to judge what action should be taken. Look after all the team members, particularly those delivering and contributing to the team overall is very important. You owe it to them to deal with difficult employees.
Dealing with and managing difficult employees is hard, unpleasant yet vitally important for the team’s and your happiness and overall performance.
The worst thing to do is to do nothing. Doing nothing does not help anyone. Take action in a fair and supportive way to give the difficult employee the best chance to meet your expectations. In most cases, this is likely to happen if you do your job well.
When the difficult employee does not, or is not, able to change, then you need to take action for the sake of the team and company and the individual concerned. Don’t put this off even though it is hard.