How To Deal With Difficult Employees

People are the hard part of management. Everyone has little quirks that make them unique, but not all of these quirks are endearing or charismatic, making people challenging to manage.‍ In extreme cases, negative attitudes from toxic employees can cause mutiny among the rest of the team, increasing the need for you to address them as soon as possible.

Historically, difficult employees underperform and cause friction on the team, which can be hard to deal with, especially as a new manager.  But as a manager, it’s your responsibility to identify and handle difficult employees.‍ This is no easy task and one which requires tact and fairness.

To learn how to deal with difficult employees, you need to identify the issue, tackle the problem head-on, and provide a relevant solution. Use this guide to hone your conflict resolution skills and turn an unpleasant situation into a positive experience.

How To Deal With Difficult Employees 101: Use the DISC Assessment to Identify Them

Several employees getting along

It's important to remember that difficult employees are not always challenging on purpose. Often when employees act out, personal issues could be the root cause. Personal problems outside of work can cause employees to act out in various ways that can have a negative impact on company culture and day-to-day operations. Other times, the environment at work causes negative behavior.

As the team manager, you must understand your team members individually to get to the bottom of what causes them to act out. According to the DISC Assessment Test, there are four employee personalities:

  • A D (dominant) personality is dominant and likes to take control and get things done.
  • An I (influential) personality is people-oriented and builds strong relationships with team members.
  • An S (steady) personality is reliable and consistent; you can always count on them to get the job.
  • A C (conscientious) personality is highly detail-oriented. They're critical of their work and others and ensure everything is done perfectly.

Each of these personalities has strengths that contribute to the team, but when these personality types are unsupported at work, they turn into problems—which is exactly why you must grasp the idea of how to deal with difficult employees.

What Happens When the 4 Employee Personality Types are Unsupported at Work

Each personality needs different environments for success. If these personalities don't get what they need, they'll act out. Take these examples of challenging employees that you may need to deal with as a guiding point:

  • When a D is stuck in a poor work environment, they're often reckless, rude, impatient, pushy, and aggressive, all of which categorize an argumentative employee.
  • When an I acts out, they're emotional, impulsive, and excited, and become the office gossip, just as you would characterize an immature employee to be.
  • An S in a hostile environment appears disengaged as when Ss are unsupported, they become indecisive, uncommunicative, slow, and lack initiative.
  • Finally, an unsupported C exhibits poor behavior and possibly even a poor work environment as they become reclusive, revengeful, critical, self-centered, and moody.

Although these kinds of individuals are difficult to deal with, it's important to remember that you can turn each of these personalities around and help them become the team members you need for your startup's success with the right coaching and support.

The Three-Step Strategy for Learning How To Deal with Difficult Employees

Before we get into different coaching strategies for each difficult personality, let's first address an overall strategy you should take when dealing with difficult employees.

1. Gather Information

Before you jump to any conclusions, start by taking the time to understand the situation of your team member. As much as we are autonomous individuals, we are also victims of our environments. A team member's environment could be the cause of the problem.

As a result, gather the facts first before you judge your teammates. Ask other team members and coworkers about the problem employee and take the time to have a one-on-one conversation with the employee to hear their side of the story. Although these difficult conversations are far from comfortable, they can shed light on problematic behavior. They also afford the opportunity to practice active listening—including body language—which can give you even more insight into any issues or behavioral changes.

By taking the time to understand how your team members feel about the situation, you show your support and create a psychologically safe environment in the process.

2. Develop an Improvement Plan

Once you have a sense of what your team member is facing, it's time for the two of you to develop an action plan together. Discuss how you see your current teammate's behaviors as problematic and what you think their ideal behavioral pattern would look like.

Next, ask your team members what obstacles they're facing preventing them from reaching the ideal behavioral pattern and what you can do as their manager to help them work past these obstacles.

After discussing what is causing the problem, work together with your teammate to develop a realistic solution. Identify steps you think the employee needs to take to improve and what the feasible end goal would be.

OKRs—or objective and key results—are an effective way to help your team members reach their goals as they ensure a specific and achievable outcome in a realistic timeframe that holds people accountable as they move through the process of goal achievement.

It also provides a measuring stick that you can apply on how to deal with difficult employees. You simply create the objective of helping difficult employees and measure the key results after applying your plan

Once you've set your employee on the right track, follow up with them about their progress. Offer additional support they need and encourage their success.

How to Coach an Argumentative Employee

Male and female employees getting in a tiff.

Do you have a team member who likes to argue just for the sake of it? Some people debate ideas and opinions, but others argue simply out of habit. They make a fuss out of the most trivial things to cause conflict.

However, the argumentative person is often a result of defense mechanisms from dealing with a hostile environment. For example, D’s in a poor environment react argumentatively. They become rude, impatient, pushy, defensive, and aggressive.

Someone's argumentativeness comes from something personal, and the root of the problem is much deeper than the surface anger they show. But there are ways you can learn how to deal with a difficult employee as a manager without feeling like their therapist. Just employ these ideas.

1. Have a One-on-One Meeting

One of the first steps when dealing with any difficult person is to hear their side of the story. When people allow their anger to ruminate, it only makes it worse. More often, it surfaces in other ways, such as lashing out or arguing with others.‍

Have a calm and professional meeting with your team members, expressing concern for their well-being and work actions. When you're talking about the employee's problematic behaviors at work, be sure to comment on the action itself and not their character.

Come prepared with documentation of these problematic behaviors, performance reviews, and any disciplinary action with the oversight of the HR department or a human resources manager. By sharing specific examples with your teammate, you may help them open their eyes to problematic behaviors they were participating in without realizing it.

You may also want to direct the worker to an employee assistance program, which can help them build work-life balance that improves both their personal life and working life while also curbing poor employee performance.

2. Don’t Take Things Personally

When dealing with argumentative individuals, the most important thing to remember is not to take things personally. Argumentative people are often just looking for a fight as they want to express their anger somewhere.

The main point you have to keep in mind is that it's not you, it's them, and you don't have to get angry in return. You'll remain neutral in your conversation with that employee by avoiding taking things personally, which is essential to getting to the root of a problem and creating an action plan.‍

How to Coach an Immature Employee  

As a professional, it can be tough to deal with an immature individual. All you want to do is tell them to “grow up.” But you and I both know that this isn't going to help. Instead, you need to develop a professional way to deal with this immaturity in the workplace.

1. Show Them the Impact of Their Work

Employees frequently don't understand how they fit into the bigger picture. When this happens, they tend to feel like their work doesn't matter. If someone's work is only seen by 30 people and has no direct impact on anyone's lives, who cares, right?

That's why you must show your employees that their work matters. Connect their work to the bigger picture and show them their impact on the business's functions. When employees feel valued and understand that their work plays a role in the bigger picture, they'll start to care about their work and start acting professionally about it.

2. Reinforce Excellence and Demand Accountability

If you don't expect high-level work from your team members, guess what? They won't give it to you.‍ A critical step to having a professional team is to demand professionalism and excellence from them. When your team realizes you don't kid around, neither will they.

A good way of reinforcing excellence in your team member's work is to reward, highlight, and applaud great work. By rewarding team members' best work, you are extrinsically motivating them to be the best they can be.

3. Provide Opportunities to Develop

In everything from sports to battle to the workplace, people have the ability to rise to the occasion. This doesn’t mean that everyone is always the right person for the job, but with the right development, their performance issues can subside drastically and talent can shine through.

Progress happens best with baby steps, so start by slowly increasing the employee's responsibility until they can take on more responsibility. As they reach greater and greater heights within their roles and the company, your team members will begin to feel empowered.

An employee who is empowered will improve their overall performance, including their maturity level. Once they understand that you trust them, they won't want to let you down.

4. Set Clear Boundaries

The best way to demand maturity from your teammates is to set clear expectations and boundaries. If a team member exhibits a bad attitude or bad behavior during a meeting, call them out on it. For example, if an employee makes an immature joke, tell them it was inappropriate and explain why.‍

Meanwhile, ensure you reward mature behavior. By encouraging mature behavior and condemning immature behavior, you help your team members learn your expectations and abide by company policies.

Reinforcement makes it more likely that you will see the desired behavior again, while punishment makes it less likely. The type of learning you are in your employees is what psychologists call operant conditioning—a method of learning that employees reward and punish for behavior.

How to Coach a Disengaged Employee

Disengaged employees on a video conference

Gallup's study shows that 85% of the world's employees are disengaged at work. This lack of engagement can cost your small business hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in revenue each year.

Disengaged employees often don't connect to their work and feel disconnected from the organization they work for. More often than not, these employees actively look for another job and leave their current position when a better situation presents itself.

When we talk about an engaged employee, we want a team member who's enthusiastically involved and committed to their work and organization. The best way to actively engage team members is to ensure they have meaningful goals at work, encourage them to solve problems, and set clear and attainable work goals. Here’s how to apply this approach as a manager or business owner.

1. Ensure employee goals are meaningful

Nobody likes to put effort behind something they don't care about. Ensuring employees connect to your organization at a greater level shows them how their work contributes to the business's goals.

When employees realize how important their work is to achieve the organization's mission, they feel connected to something bigger than themselves. They connect to a bigger mission that aligns with their values and impacts team members to do their best work by inspiring motivation.

2. Encourage problem-solving

By encouraging individual problem-solving, you are helping team members gain greater autonomy in their work. When team members experience greater independence, they feel free to work on tasks that they do best.

Allow individuals to work to their strengths. This not only allows team members to achieve their goals but also ensures your organization's bottom-line goals are reached. It can also help people develop their skills and encourage greater creativity, which is essential for innovation.

3. Set Clear Expectations

To do their best work, team members need to understand what it is that they're doing and what role they play within the organization. They also need to have a thorough understanding of what the expectations and tasks are of their position.

For employees to be effectively engaged in the work, they must have role clarity and expectations. When team members fully understand their team's role, they set attainable goals for their work and reach these goals efficiently and effectively. The best way to engage team members in their work is to remind them of its importance.‍

When team members realize the impact their work makes, they are happy to ensure their work is done to the best of their ability because it becomes something to be proud of.

How to Coach a Negative Employee

Negative employees at a meeting

While it is beneficial to have a critical thinker on your team, too much critical thinking, aka negativity, brings the whole team down, slowing down everyone's productivity and effectiveness.

Hostile team members can be incredibly hard to work with because they tend to drain the joy and positivity out of everything you do. Additionally, team members who offer up problems with no solutions are not being helpful to anyone.

1. Help Them Realize That Their Mood Affect Others

Sometimes people don't realize how much they're bringing others down. As a result, managers need to use specific examples to show them the negative behavior they're exhibiting. If you observe them acting negatively in team meetings, be direct and tell them how this brings down others' moods and optimism. Explain how their moods hurt the team's performance.

Show them an alternative they can do to this behavior, such as sharing that they're not having the best day but only going into detail when asked.

2. Create Positive Interactions

Having positive interactions is crucial to your team’s well-being and psyche. You can help your opposing teammate create more positive interactions in their workday by reinforcing a positive statement or contribution you hear from them. In fact, it’s one of the proven ways to learn how to deal with difficult employees.

Remind your employee that positive interactions don't have to be complicated and can be as simple as a friendly greeting in their daily meetings.

3. Get to the Root of the Problem

Many times hostile teammates are focused solely on problems without offering an alternative or solution. When a negative teammate brings up a problem, ask them to provide more details.

Use open-ended questions as this will cause them to provide a more thorough answer than “yes” or “no.” For example, if they express dislike for a design, ask them what they specifically don't like about the design.

You can then work on the solution by getting to the root of the problem as you poke for more details. It's essential to find a solution when working with a negative employee. Having a solution-based mindset keeps the team focused instead of spiraling into a black hole of negativity.

With these three steps listed, your workplace should start feeling more upbeat in no time.

A Final Word on How To Deal With Difficult Employees

You now have effective strategies to coach argumentative, immature, disengaged, and negative employees. Through these proactive approaches, you can curb difficult employee behavior, accept employee feedback, and become one heck of a good manager as a result—one that’s trusted and revered for their abilities in even the most uncomfortable situations.

👉 Want to transform into a Unicorn Leader? Check out my leadership training for managers page to learn more.

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