How to Deal with Difficult Employees

Ask any manager what keeps them up at night and the answer will undoubtedly be people. The good news is, there are actions you can take to create better relationships with your staff — relationships that produce the desired results with integrity, respect and clarity.

The dictionary describes “difficult” as “hard to deal with, manage or overcome.” This typically occurs in five scenarios:

  • Employees aren’t performing the job according to expectations.
  • They’re not doing the job at all.
  • They’re not delivering results on time.
  • They’re dishonest.
  • They simply have a bad attitude.As in any relationship, care needs to be taken in communication with your employees. Generally, this means setting aside an uninterrupted block of time to interact with an employee in a respectful way, within the appropriate emotional context. The right conversation in the wrong mood is ineffective and can create more damage than improvement to the relationship.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Facts versus opinions                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The manager must also be able to discern between facts and opinions. Saying “It’s 32 degrees right now” is a fact. “The time is 4:00 p.m. EST” is a fact. An opinion, on the other hand, is a judgment or assessment. Opinions can be valid or invalid but are never true or false.Each of the five areas of difficulty we have with employees involves an opinion or judgment we make. These can be supported by facts but what generally makes the situation difficult is that these judgements are subject to interpretation. It’s more effective to communicate by gathering facts that support a well-grounded opinion. Managers need to make good judgments and the best way to do that is to have facts that support a conclusion that an employee can’t logically argue with.

    A “difficult” scenario

    Let’s look at an example relating to one of these issues. Bob was a well-liked employee who always completed his work. The problem was, Bob came late to the 8:00 a.m. Monday meetings — 5-10 minutes late once or twice a month, a source of constant aggravation for his boss.

    Their conversation went something like this:

    “Hi, Bob, please come in, shut the door and have a seat.”

    Bob nervously complied.

    “Bob, I want to discuss a behavior of yours that has been disturbing me. May I be frank with you?” the boss asked.

    “Sure,” Bob said.

    “Bob, in the last two months, you’ve been late to four Monday morning meetings. Were you aware of that?”

    “Well, I know I’ve been late a few times.”

    “As you know, I start my meetings at exactly 8:00 a.m. and I expect everyone to be in their seats and ready by then. When you don’t show up on time, I get irritated and think you’re being disrespectful of me and your co-workers. What will it take for you to show up on time for meetings?”

    Bob shifted in his seat. “I never meant any disrespect. It’s just sometimes I run into traffic problems on Monday mornings.”

    “Bob, you’ve never been more than 10 minutes late to a meeting. What do you think would happen if you left your home 15 minutes earlier?”

    “I guess that would work.”

    “It’s important to me that you take this seriously. I value you as an employee and, except for this, you’re doing a good job. I don’t want this to get in the way. Can I count on you to show up on time?”

    “Yes,” Bob promised.

    In the two years since this conversation, Bob has never been late to a Monday morning meeting.

    The seven-step process

    Let’s deconstruct what happened and see how we can utilize the process for dealing with some other issues with difficult employees.

    First, the manager set aside an uninterrupted time to meet with the employee and have a conversation. Having a meeting creates the context that that subject is important and serious.

    Second, the manager asked for permission to have an open and frank conversation with the employee. This is a critical step in preparing the employee for the nature of the conversation.

    Third, the manager came prepared with dates and times of the incidents readily available. Facts eliminate objections unless the data is just plain wrong, and if it is, then that’s important to know as well.

    Fourth, the manager specified the expectations of the job or the standards by which the manager would be satisfied. Sometimes employees don’t know what’s expected of them.

    Fifth, the manager expressed his feelings. Emotional intelligence is crucial to successful leadership. It’s important for both the manager and the employee to express their emotions in a healthy format.

    Sixth, the manager didn’t accept the employee’s excuse for not doing what was expected and, in this case, even suggested a solution. This is a judgment call; many times it’s better to ask the employee to come up with a solution.

    Finally, the manager asked the employee to promise to change his behavior. Through these promises we can produce results with respect and integrity. If the problem resurfaces in the future, the issue then becomes a conversation about trust, integrity and “keeping your word.”

    This simple seven-step process can be used to address other issues with difficult employees. When an employee isn’t performing his/her job, then the manager needs to determine if it’s an issue of “can’t,” “won’t,” or “doesn’t know how.”

    A “can’t” issue means the employee lacks the ability to perform the job. In this instance, the choices are to either find another position for the person or let them go.

    A “won’t” issue is an attitude problem. Often, having a conversation about the impact of the employee’s attitude will shift the behavior. Other times, giving the employee some uninterrupted time to discuss his/her feelings can alleviate the problem. If it’s not resolvable, especially in a dishonesty case, the best option is to terminate the relationship. Finally, an issue of “doesn’t know how” means the manager must provide training so that the employee can perform the job.

    Your best employees may be the ones who at one time or another were difficult employees. Having a conversation about issues and being authentic is the key to building good relationships. The joy of management is creating a work environment where people can excel beyond their expectations and every person can make a difference.

    Vistage member and speaker Mark A. Taylor is CEO of Taylor Systems Engineering Corporation, a technology and consulting firm based in Plymouth, Mich.

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