November 23, 2015 | By

Dealing with Difficult Employees

by Rich Gallagher


Managers often feel that their work would be great, if it weren’t for the people! And they have a point: Employee relationships always have built-in challenges and frustrations, even in the very best workplaces. But the good news is that anyone can learn specific interpersonal skills to better understand and manage these situations.

Often, we try to confront the behaviors of our most difficult employees and change them — which often gets us nowhere. I propose a different approach — one based on sound behavioral science — that speaks to people’s strengths and engages them. Let’s look at a few common employee challenges and explore some new ways to handle them.

The Mediocre Performer

You know the type: They simply don’t measure up to your other team members. Meanwhile, they feel their work is just fine, and any problems they may have are always everyone else’s fault.

How to handle them: These employees may seem defensive and un-coachable, but if you focus on their potential instead of their flaws, you will often get a much different outcome. Don’t tell them what they are doing wrong, which is guaranteed to trigger their self-defense mechanism. Instead, ask them how they do their job, acknowledge and validate their responses and then make specific, factual, positive suggestions for performance improvement. Express confidence in their ability to grow and change and give them a chance to rise to the occasion.

The Old-Timer

Some employees seem to have retired and forgotten to tell you about it. They are resistant to change and stuck in old ways of doing things. And if you disagree with them — or worse yet, criticize them — be prepared to watch the fur fly! They don’t like to be wrong and have a hard time grasping other points of view.

How to handle them: The key here is to acknowledge the old-timer’s position first and paint their viewpoint as that of a totally reasonable person before you say your piece. You aren’t just kissing up by doing this — you are opening a dialogue while disarming them of their verbal weapons. Then look for ways to make change easy, gradual or assisted for them.

The Jerk

These employees are often competent but rude to others. Whether they are openly hostile or simply passive-aggressive, they feel that they are the guardians of doing things right. And in their world, there is a simple solution to most workplace issues: Fire everyone else.

How to handle them: You can’t just ask jerks to “be nicer.” Often, they literally don’t know how. More important, they will say they are in the right and steer the discussion back to their ceaseless list of grievances. This is why facts — not feelings — are your friend here. Instead of shaming them for their attitude, workshop their language and model positive ways to for them to have more influence: “When you say X, here is how people react to you. Let’s look at other things you might say that would be more effective.”

The King/Queen of Drama

Some employees constantly confront others — or you! — about their issues and try to rally others around them. They believe that if might doesn’t make right, loudness and intimidation certainly do. Their strategy is that the best defense is a good offense

How to handle them: You have your best chance of dealing with drama-creators if you try to engage them. Remember that displayed anger almost always springs from a feeling of powerlessness. Listen intently to them, reflect back their feelings and mirror their grievances. Then as soon as you feel the heat drop even a little bit, you can both start working on how they can address their concerns more constructively.

The Hygiene-Challenged

Some people are oblivious to their physical impact on others. They may have poor personal habits or a real medical issue. Either way, this is often one of the hardest topics for many managers to bring up, because it has the potential to embarrass or humiliate an employee.

How to handle them: The most important first step is to normalize the situation: What is a perfectly legitimate reason for people to smell? For example, “I realize that people often get active and sweaty because of exercise or hard work.” Then assess whether this is something they have observed to check their awareness level. Emphasize that people and reactions vary and pattern your solutions to their responses. If someone wasn’t aware, they will often “get it” and mitigate the issue. Conversely, when someone has a legitimate medical reason, it may become an issue of fair accommodation.

Each of these approaches involves a technique known as “strength-based communications,” which speaks to the strengths and interests of people instead of calling them out. This approach has been sweeping fields ranging from athletics to psychotherapy, and it’s making a huge difference in employee relationships as well. Try it yourself, and you will find that with a little effort and practice you can create greater levels of harmony and teamwork in your workplace. Good luck!

About the Author:

Rich Gallagher LMFT is a former customer service executive and practicing psychotherapist who heads the Point of Contact Group, a training and development firm in Ithaca, NY. His nine books include two national #1 customer service bestsellers, What to Say to a Porcupine and The Customer Service Survival Kit, as well as How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work.


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