Dealing with Difficult Employees

Dealing with difficult employees is often the most challenging aspect of a manager’s job. Here’s how to get perspective on the situation and address conflict.

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Dealing with Difficult Employees

When dealing with difficult employees, leaders often feel overwhelmed and frustrated by a task that can seem like a distraction from broader organizational goals. But managing personnel issues, including conflict among employees, is a pivotal leadership task—and one that can be improved with knowledge and practice. The following solutions for dealing with difficult employees will help you handle conflict, when it arises, with confidence and creativity.

Listen to Learn

One of the easiest and most common mistakes that leaders make when dealing with difficult employees is to assume that those who seem to be causing trouble are difficult by nature. Because of the human tendency to attribute people’s behaviors to their innate personality or their disposition rather than to aspects of the situation, we sometimes are too quick to judge employees’ statements and actions. Many times, what appears to be difficult behavior is instead a natural reaction to a difficult situation—one that needs to be addressed with understanding and sympathy. A formerly congenial employee who has begun snapping at colleagues, for example, maybe be dealing with a crisis at home or may be overloaded at work. 

When you find yourself managing difficult people, schedule a private meeting (whether via video, phone, or in person) with them. Begin by simply asking them how they’re doing. Are they facing difficulties at home, a conflict with a coworker, a stressful task, or an overwhelming workload? Discuss together how you and your organization might help them work through any difficulties. Training, additional support, or counseling are all possible remedies. 

Dealing with Difficult People

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Set Realistic Goals

During such conversations, also discuss directly any difficulties the employee is creating at work. It’s important to raise your concerns and give the employee an opportunity to respond to them. While any challenges they identify may clarify their behavior, it doesn’t excuse them from continuing to create problems. 

Describe the types of changes you’d like them to make, and brainstorm how they can do better. You might put your expectations in writing, setting achievable goals and a timeline for meeting them. Schedule regular meetings with the employee to check in on them, monitor their progress, and offer feedback and assistance.

Managing Conflict

When dealing with difficult employees, leaders often find they must work to resolve a conflict that erupted between two or more subordinates. In such conflict management situations, leaders can benefit from viewing themselves not only as negotiators, but also as mediators and arbitrators, according to Harvard Kennedy School professor Hannah Riley Bowles. 

Because they are deeply invested in employee conflict, managers lack the objectivity of a third-party mediator or arbitrator. However, leaders can still benefit from applying alternative dispute resolution techniques to a difficult situation at work.

As a de facto mediator, a leader might begin by bringing employees in conflict together (online or in person) and encouraging them to open up about their underlying interests and concerns. The leader can then try to help them brainstorm a solution that will satisfy all parties involved. By comparison, a leader playing the role of arbitrator would listen to each side of the conflict and then unilaterally announce a binding decision. 

Mediation techniques can be especially helpful when employees are concerned that you might not treat them fairly or equally. When you enlist employees to work together to find a solution, they tend to become more invested in a decision than when you dictate it from above. And because mediation is collaborative in nature, it is likely to generate more creative solutions than arbitration would. 

By contrast, playing the role of arbitrator can be useful when a conflict raises issues of policy or precedent, according to Bowles. In such cases, you may want to hear all sides of the issue and then render a decision. In addition, you might choose to make a unilateral decision when an employee has behaved unethically and needs to be censured or penalized. And when significant power differences exist between employees as a result of their different roles, arbitration may be a better model to follow than mediation, as low-power employees may feel inhibited from making suggestions. 

A final note: Regardless of the approach you take when dealing with difficult employees, it is important to document all of your interactions and incidents with them. If you eventually need to let the employee go, and/or if the courts become involved, you may need to document problems, performance evaluations, and decisions.

What advice do you have for those dealing with difficult employees?

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