Managing Difficult Employees, and Those Who Just Seem Difficult

Managers often write off employees as “difficult people,” but are your employees saying the same about you?

By — on / Dealing with Difficult People

managing difficult employees

Ask the many managers of a certain high-volume restaurant in the Midwest what their greatest work challenge is, and they’d most likely say something along the lines of “managing difficult employees.”

When something goes wrong—an item sells out during the lunch rush, customers complain about slow service, etc.—a manager typically responds by firing off an angry group email that pins blame on one or more employees. “This is unacceptable!!!” or “The kitchen needs to answer for this!!” is the typical tone.

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Feeling attacked, employees often lash out in response, on email or in person. The result is a dysfunctional workplace in which both management and employees believe they are dealing with difficult coworkers—and repeat problems go unresolved.

Managers often feel like they are facing an uphill battle when it comes to dealing with personnel issues and managing difficult employees. In many cases, though, it is the managers as much as the employees who are contributing to a wide range of difficult situations at work—employees who constantly bicker, who sabotage themselves and others, or who complain about straightforward rules.

When dealing with difficult employees, it’s wise to start by looking in the mirror, psychological research suggests.

Changing the Blame Game

The dysfunctional cycle of errors and conflict at the Midwest restaurant reflect a common human bias. Namely, when making judgments, all of us tend to attribute aspects of other people’s behavior to internal characteristics—laziness, a bad attitude, etc.—rather than external factors beyond their control—a late delivery, bad weather, etc. That is, we play the blame game. At the same time, we are more likely to attribute aspects of our own behavior to external rather than internal factors—we let ourselves off the hook.

This cognitive bias, first documented in the lab by Edward E. Jones and Victor Harris, was dubbed the fundamental attribution error by psychologist Lee Ross and is also known as the correspondence bias or the attribution effect. It occurs in part because we lack full knowledge of others’ experiences and decision-making processes. As a result, we fail to give them the same credit that we give ourselves when things go wrong.

Due to the fundamental attribution error, when the restaurant’s kitchen runs out of a dish during the lunch rush, managers may assume that the chef failed to order enough product. The chef, meanwhile, may blame the receiving department for losing part of a delivery. The “truth” may lie somewhere in between—or in another direction entirely.

The common tendency to blame others for problems that we would never blame ourselves for can lead managers to assume that they are managing difficult employees—and employees to assume they are being led by difficult people.

A Shift in Perspective

Managers have much to gain from abandoning the assumption that they are managing difficult employees. The following three guidelines can set you on the right path:

  1. Take a fact-finding approach. When something goes wrong, resist your initial impulse to look for someone to blame. Give yourself time to calm down, and then meet with individual employees in private and ask them to give you their perspective on what happened. Tell them that your goal is to arrive at a full understanding of what went wrong with the goal of working together to fix it. Explain that you’re not interested in assigning blame or punishment but rather are looking toward the future. Try to listen without judgment and avoid the temptation to jump in with criticism.
  2. Brainstorm solutions. Rather than taking a top-down approach to correcting problems that arise, engage your employees in helping to identify solutions. After all, they’re usually the ones who know the most about how procedures and processes actually unfold at work—and thus are best equipped to identify areas where adjustments need to be made. Often, simple organizational changes can promote better outcomes—and they don’t require employees to change who they are or what they are capable of delivering.
  3. Foster a learning environment. Moving further beyond a focus on “managing difficult employees,” managers should foster an environment where employees can safely make mistakes. That doesn’t mean putting up with sloppy or lazy work, but rather giving workers the freedom to take calculated risks without the fear that they will be punished if their vision doesn’t turn out as well as planned. By giving employees time to explore their interests and be creative, you are likely to find that they are less difficult—and far more delightful—than you ever imagined.

What strategies do you use to resolve personnel conflicts in your organization? Share your experience with our readers in the comments.

Claim your FREE copy: Dealing with Difficult People

Discover how to collaborate, negotiate, and bargain with even the most combative opponents with, Dealing with Difficult People, a FREE report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

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