Updated: May 28, 2021
Nearly every manager I've ever coached has told me about having at least one employee who's not so great.
There's generally that one (or more) employee who doesn't perform well, or is difficult to deal with, or has a hard time getting along with others, or means well but just doesn't ever quite do what's expected, or….
The effect of these problem employees and others like them is apparent. Research shows problem employees hurt their workgroups in 5 primary ways:
Damaging the team's reputation
But that's not all. Problem employees also hurt their leaders by reducing their effectiveness, impairing their reputation, reducing their desire to stay in the department, decreasing their willingness to stay with the organization, and diminishing their chances of a promotion, according to the research.
So, what can you do about it?
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:
Often, when an employee is difficult, we stop paying attention to what's going on. We're irritated, it seems hopeless, and we've already decided what we think about the employee. So we just turn our attention to other things out of a combination of avoidance and self-protection.
Often, when employees are causing problems, they express legitimate concerns in an unproductive way. It's up to managers to fully explore the potential motivations for their behaviour.
Tell the employee which aspect (or aspects) of her behaviour 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 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 behaviour and be better positioned to identify if this reflects problems within the organization.
When employees understand they will be held accountable for their choices, they are less likely to engage in disruptive behaviour. And if they do, the consequences of continuing to engage in that behaviour will be more clear-cut, both to you and the employee.
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 choices helps them avoid overconfidence, a common and costly error in negotiation and other contexts, the 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.
Build trust through support and encouragement, modelling the behaviour you want to see from your colleagues. This will empower individual team members while enabling the team to celebrate successes together.
Give clear behavioural Feedback:
Most managers will spend months, even years, complaining about poor employees and not ever giving them actual feedback about what they need to be doing differently.
Unfortunately, the ones that do give Feedback do not often provide good Feedback. Rather than using it as a tool to spur improvement, employees may feel attacked or defeated, and their performance will continue to suffer.
Below are some new insights into giving Feedback that gets results:
Frame your message to make future success attainable:
Instead of delivering news that the employee has low, e.g. leadership potential, you'll get better results if you help the employee see and move toward an ideal future image. That might mean inviting them to clarify their leadership aspirations and then providing resources to help them get there or suggesting career tracks or other directions where the employee's strengths might make them a valuable future leader.
Be humble and be constructive:
When you have to give negative Feedback, be humble, and focus on directly teaching the skills needed for future success.
Take the emotional sting out of Feedback:
Often, when negative Feedback is required, a failure happened in one of the middle levels: process inadequacy, task challenge, or complexity. Those sorts of failures are rarely one person's fault; as a leader, you most likely hold some responsibility for failing to provide the right resources, the right training, or the right process to get the job done. Recognizing this takes a little humility; owning up to it as part of your feedback process can take some of the stings out of receiving bad news.
Flip and elevate your Feedback:
Criticism focuses on what we do not want. Good Feedback should highlight what we do want.
If you learn to use these 'good manager' approaches when you have a problematic employee, then no matter how things turn out, you'll end up knowing that you've done your best in a challenging situation. And that may be the best stress reducer of all.