Four Ways to Deal with a Difficult Employee

Four Ways to Deal with a Difficult EmployeeWe’ve all had times when we’ve had someone on our team who was really difficult to work with. It may have been a style difference. It may have been not seeing eye to eye about how the work should be done. It may have been that he resented you as the new leader of the group. Whatever the reason for the difficulty, the individual made our work day less pleasant and our job as a manager more taxing.

I recently had a client who had several difficult team members. They were long-term members of the team and she was the most recent in a long-line of managers who were only there a short time. In my   opinion, she received some really bad advice about how to handle them. “Ignore them,” the advice-givers said. “Don’t meet with them.” “Communicate through email”. “Focus only on the       rest of the team.” Wrong. All of these tactics did nothing but stoke the flames.

Sometimes, difficult employees can be a bit like the bully on the playground. They look for signs of weakness — like ignoring them or cutting off communication — as signs of managerial weakness. Instead of pulling back, I would suggest engaging more.

    • Diffuse the situation by talking with the person about him or herself. What strengths does he or she have? What areas does the individual want to develop? What does she enjoy about their work? What does he dislike about it? What’s important to her? Is this a job or part of a career? Discuss how you may be able to leverage the person’s strengths or develop areas of weakness. Think about whether things in the job or work environment can be changed.
      Sometimes the difficult employee has never had someone ask those questions.
    • Set clear expectations for behavior and results. Share your vision for how the group will be operating. Let him know you will be holding everyone accountable to those standards and they will be a regular part of your conversations.
    • Value the individual’s experience and knowledge. She may very well have several performance issues but she also probably has valuable knowledge or experience that can be a benefit to the group. Ask for insights and ideas about changes you want to make or how to introduce an idea.
    • Meet regularly. Focus on the work that is being done, issues you can help resolve and moving towards that vision. Hold the individual accountable. Provide specific feedback — both positive and developmental. Cut off whining. If the person begins to complain, move the conversation towards finding solutions.


All innovation, big and small, involves conflict. Innovation is about coming up with what I call the ‘third solution.’ It’s not my solution or your solution but a third solution that may or may not have elements of our original solutions. The problem is that getting to that third solution can be really, really hard because it involves conflict.

Most people don’t like conflict so they avoid it, sugar coat it, see it as a necessary evil, or quite frankly, just handle it badly. That’s a problem when there are statistics that show 42% of a manager’s time is spent dealing with conflict and
when one of the key characteristics of innovative firms is a culture of robust conversation and debate.

A framework developed by Elias Porter, PhD. is a helpful tool for taking a more effective approach to conflict. The foundation of this approach is that relationships are based on motivation under two conditions. These two conditions are when things are going well and during conflict. The four premises are:

1. Behavior is driven by the motivation to feel worthwhile as a person. The first question we should ask ourselves about why someone else is behaving is ‘what in this situation may seem threatening?” How is what is being proposed threatening to the other person?

2. Motivation changes in conflict. Early in a conflict we focus on ourselves, the problem and the other person. If the conflict isn’t resolved, soon we are only focused on ourselves and the problem. When we’re at loggerheads, it’s only about me. The more quickly we work on resolving a conflict, the less likely we are to lose our focus on others’ needs.

3. When our strengths are overdone, they become weaknesses. Someone may be very flexible and in many situations that can be a strength. If it’s overused in conflict the individual can be seen as wishy-washy or unable to commit to a course of action or solution. Someone whose self-confidence makes them an effective leader can be seen as arrogant when they seem overly confident in conflict. Ask yourself if you are relying too heavily on a strength when you are faced with a conflict and how could it be perceived negatively. What impact is that strength having on achieving the third solution?

4. Our personal filters add color to the situation. We often believe that people are doing things for the same reason we are doing something and when we think it’s different, we assume it has a malicious or negative motivation. Our filters make us focus on certain factors because of our reasoning but miss important information about where the other person is coming from. Think about what questions you are not asking in a situation. Are you making assumptions that aren’t true?