Four ways to deal with difficult employees

By client

It is almost inevitable that in a manager’s professional landscape today that they will eventually encounter one (or more) employees who perform below the expected level of performance. Whether they are difficult to deal with, do not get along with the rest of the team, are a cultural mismatch, display poor behaviour or even mean well but cannot deliver to meet expectations, they must be dealt with swiftly and professionally, but rarely are today.

Managers who do not handle them swiftly end up devoting a disproportionate amount of time, emotion and energy on these difficult employees. If they are not careful, they will, unfortunately, find themselves being held hostage by the employee.

Dealing with difficult employees requires the Manager to quickly identify these employees and to have a clear process on how to lead and manage them to either improve their performance and behaviour to meet expectations or ultimately leave their employment, there is no middle ground.


1. Identify the issue

Often when an employee is difficult, Managers stop paying attention to the often obvious, underlying reason why they are behaving like this. Irritation sets in and as the employee continue to underdeliver and not meet expectations, the Manager will avoid the issue and become resentful of the individual. It will lead to the decision that the employee must go.

Tim Tassopoulos, President of Chick-Fil-A said “The easy decision for a leader is to sack an employee, the harder action is to be able to put your hand on your heart and honestly say “I have done everything, and I mean everything, possible to make this person a success”. His view is that if the leader has not done this, they have failed the employee.

The best leaders today become attentive and involved when an employee is not performing. They strive to improve them by developing a clear, unemotive understanding of the situation. The great leaders take time to comprehend the reasons for poor performance and deliver empathetic, yet direct and constructive feedback to the employee, that is genuinely focussed on achieving improved performance from the employee.

The critical task is to first identify what is causing this employee to be labeled difficult?

Is it poor performance (failing to meet deadlines and putting the team under pressure), Is it a lack of competency or not understanding what is required, or Is it a behavioural issue (snide comments in meetings)? Identify the real issue and determine a clear action plan with defined outcomes on what performance is required from the employee to bridge before arranging a meeting with them.


 2. Call them out 

Leaders will regularly procrastinate when faced with a difficult employee and “a mountain will grow out of a molehill”. They will spend months, even years complaining about underperforming employees, but never actually call them out for their poor behaviour or performance. It is human nature to want to avoid confrontation, but with the privilege of being a leader, comes a requirement to lead and deal with the situation.

Set a time to have a conversation with the employee about their performance, concentrate on the facts and evidence. It is imperative that your frame of mind during this conversation is clear, as it is stressful dealing with difficult employees and normal for emotions to run high. Leave emotion at the door when approaching this discussion and focus solely on the facts.

A crucial part of the conversation is listening to what the employee has to say. If they feel they are being treated fairly and listened to, they will start acting differently. This may lead to a more open and honest conversation resulting in uncovering the real underlying issue that needs to be addressed. Be bold and show courage as that is what is expected of a leader.


3. Let them know the consequences

An important outcome of confronting a difficult employee and having a conversation is to establish boundaries moving forward. They must clearly understand the consequences should there be no change in behaviour or performance improvement over an agreed timeframe. Restate the expected standards of performance and behaviour and discuss the consequences should they fall below them.

Ask for the employee’s commitment and set a follow-up date.  “Here’s what turning this around could look like. If I don’t observe this behaviour by a specific date, here’s what will happen.” Establishing consequences on the spot is necessary. If difficult employees don’t believe and see that there are consequences for their continued negative behaviour, they are unlikely to change.


4. Solve the problem

After all, this is why the conversation is occurring, right? To establish the problem, outline the consequences if no change occurs and ideally make the problem go away.

Suggest areas for improvements and recommended courses of action, but also allow the employee to make suggestions and buy into this decision after all the improvement of their performance is ultimately in their hands. The employee must understand the issues and know you will be paying close attention to their behaviour and performance going forward.

From experience, the majority of employees once being made aware of an issue will endeavour to change. Often, they do not realise they are behaving in this way in the first place due to a lack of self-awareness. Solving the problem can ultimately only go one of two ways, either the employee changes and starts to perform or they will leave because they resign or you terminate them.


Final Takeaway

At the end of the day, the productivity and harmony of the team is the priority. Just as one bad apple can spoil a bunch, the ripples created from just one difficult employee will impact the entire team performance.

Dealing with difficult employees sends a message to the rest of the team on the standard of conduct and performance expected. Dealt with quickly and appropriately it reinforces to the team that the Leader has the collective interest of the entire team at their core and will handle problems as they arise, this is a crucial message to be heard. Leaders are paid to make hard decisions and drive performance, that delivers improvement in the quality and outputs of their team.

Use these simple guidelines when dealing with a difficult employee, no matter how things turn out at the end, take comfort in knowing that you can place your hand on your heart and say I did everything possible to make them a success, sometimes they don’t want to come on the journey.

Remember a team functions best as a collective one and never when the interests of one individual are placed above those of the whole. If a tough, difficult decision is made for the right reasons, the leader will win the respect and trust of their team and that is the foundation from where teams can grow and become great teams.

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