Managing Difficult Employees: Listening to Learn

When managing difficult employees, leaders often err by being either conflict avoidant or overly critical. Strike a better balance by beginning with active listening.

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Managing Difficult Employees: Listening to Learn

Managing difficult employees is one of the biggest challenges that leaders face. When employees seem unreasonable, belligerent, or uncooperative, managers may be tempted either to brush aside the problem or, alternatively, to fly off the handle.

A better solution when managing difficult staff? Use negotiation techniques to get to the root of underlying problems. The following three guidelines can help managers navigate the challenge of managing difficult people at work.


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1. Listen to Learn

Often when employees are causing problems, it’s because they are expressing legitimate concerns in an unproductive way. It’s up to managers to fully explore the potential motivations for their behavior.

To do so, tell employee which aspect (or aspects) of her behavior concerns you, and ask her to open up about what is causing it. If the employee becomes defensive or upset, avoid the urge to rush in and try to gloss over the situation. Instead, repeat back what you think you’ve heard, and ask for further clarification if you’ve gotten anything wrong. Do this until the employee is satisfied that she has been heard. Then ask questions aimed at drawing out the employees’ deeper interests and core concerns.

By listening actively, you likely will get a stronger sense of the roots of the employee’s behavior and be in a better position to identify if this reflects problems within the organization.

2. Institute Accountability

When managing difficult employees, leaders often overlook the organizational structures and decisions that contributed to their behavior. In particular, many organizations fail to set clear, effective accountability standards for employees.

Leaders need to set up strong accountability measures based on clear guidelines and the right types of incentives and consequences. Knowing in advance that we’ll be accountable for our decisions appears to motivate us to do our best. In particular, making people accountable in advance (rather than after the fact) for their decisions helps them avoid overconfidence, a common and costly error in negotiation and other contexts, University of California at Berkeley professor Philip Tetlock has found in his research. Therefore, be sure to tell employees during the planning stages of a project or negotiation that they’ll be expected to justify their decisions to you throughout the process.

When employees understand they will be held accountable for their choices, they are less likely to engage in disruptive behavior. And if they do, the consequences of continuing to engage in that behavior will be more clear-cut, both to you and to the employee.

3. Deliver Helpful Feedback

When managing difficult employees, we typically try to deliver feedback that will help them improve their behavior going forward. Unfortunately, people often do not receive feedback well, write Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project in their book Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. Rather than using it as a tool to spur improvement, employees may feel attacked or defeated, and their performance will continue to suffer.

That’s often because the feedback itself isn’t delivered in a constructive fashion. Helpful feedback—the kind that motivates positive change—should include three elements, according to Stone and Heen.

First, feedback should include appreciation for what a person is doing well. Even if an employee seems to be causing problems, he is probably doing something right that is worthy of praise. For example, someone who is antagonizing teammates on a project might deserve to be complimented for his dedication to the project and high standards.

Second, feedback should include an evaluation of the person’s current performance, which could be positive, negative, or both. Evaluations typically involve comparisons to others or to a set of standards. Aim to keep evaluations fact-based, as personal judgments can provoke anxiety and perpetuate the cycle of difficult behavior. In addition, it’s important not to take others’ complaints about an employee at face value. Rather, give so-called difficult people the opportunity to share their perspective.

Third, feedback should include coaching—advice aimed at helping the seemingly difficult employee learn, grow, or change. That could mean identifying new challenges the person should tackle or pinpointing areas where he can improve. Rather than simply delivering instructions or ultimatums, attempt to engage the employee in a joint problem-solving process. The more involved the employee is in developing solutions, the more likely he will be to follow through on the feedback. In addition, the employee is likely to know more than you will about the potential challenges he may face and will be in a better position to map a path forward.

Are you managing difficult employees? What strategies have you found helpful when managing difficult employees in your organization?

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