We’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.