How to Work with Difficult Employees

Kathy Simpson

We all know what it’s like to work with difficult people. They alienate others,  stymie progress or put up roadblocks in the process of getting the job done, provoking their managers and fellow team members.

But with an understanding of the dynamics behind disruptive behavior together with effective employee motivation, collaboration and coaching, you can learn how to turn your difficult team members around to channel their energy in a productive direction.

The science behind emotion

Difficult employees often radiate emotion – from anger and frustration to passive-aggression or disrespect. Although trying to reason with them may make matters worse, this is actually a function of how the human brain is wired.

According to brain science, when information is taken in through the senses, the brain does a quick scan to determine if it’s stressful or threatening in any way:

  1. If not, higher cognitive faculties are engaged to process that information, allowing us to  apply judgment, solve problems, exercise creativity, put our thoughts into words and interact with others.
  2. If stress or a threat is perceived, our primitive “fight-or-flight response” is activated. In this state, we tend to become defensive and rigid, and emotions such as fear or anger may arise.

Everyone perceives threats differently based on their personality and conditioning, but employees who are at odds with their team can set off an adversarial situation. Not only are they perceived as difficult by others, but they also see others as the difficult ones who are thwarting their goals.

“When we are upset with them and they are upset with us, we are all coming from the fight or flight part of the brain; thus, our ability to solve problems is compromised,” says Bill Crawford, PhD, author of From Chaos to Calm: Dealing with Difficult People. Suggestions for change are received as criticism, Crawford adds, which can make matters even worse.

The challenge for managers is to shift difficult employees away from their defensive emotions and into a mindset focused on problem solving. It’s only from there that a productive discussion is possible.

A formula for change

If you’re confronting a difficult employee, these steps can help you motivate your employee to make a constructive change.

  1. Acknowledge the situation. Avoiding the conflict may be tempting, but problems of this nature don’t usually resolve on their own – and they may very well get worse. Set up time to meet with your employee privately, preferably in a neutral location.
  2. Neutralize your own negative emotions. If you’re angry or annoyed, your judgement might become impaired, or you might fail to articulate your concerns in a clear and impartial manner, thus creating more strife between you and your employee. Before meeting, take the time you need to clear your mind and gain perspective.
  3. Listen first. Your best chance for improving the situation comes through understanding. Let your employee share their perspective so you can grasp what’s motivating their behavior. Are personal issues affecting performance? Does the employee want more responsibility or less? Do they need more support or clearer expectations?

Whatever the cause, listen with an open mind. Your objective is not to agree, only to understand.

“Listening for understanding versus agreement does not engender debate,” Crawford says, “because we don’t have the need to prove the team member wrong. All we want to do is ensure that we are clear about what is important to them, especially if this differs from what is important to us.”

Simply being heard can often defuse another’s emotions – and you’ll gain information and insight that will help you respond more effectively.

  1. Give clear, objective feedback. Focus on the problematic behavior, not the person, and the impact the behavior has on the team. Making it personal will only reactivate a defensive response.
  2. Problem-solve together, looking for a potential solution rather than focusing on past difficulties. For example, ask the employee what sorts of compromises might improve the situation.
  3. Set clear goals for change and meet regularly to review the employee’s progress.

Dealing with conflict is challenging, but opening the lines of communication can lead to creative solutions that otherwise might not be recognized or possible. If the problematic behavior continues, you may have no choice but to terminate an employee, but at least you’ll know you’ve given it your best shot.

Next Steps:  Imagine a world where your employees show up on time, work smart and deliver results for your small business day in and day out. Not there yet? Sign up for the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter and we’ll send you the best science-backed strategies on managing productive, happy employees—including tips on how to get them to show up on time!

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