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How to Deal with Difficult Employees

How to Deal with Difficult Employees
28 July 2015 John Moore

Managers achieve results through the people they manage. These results are therefore a reflection of their effectiveness in managing people.

Four Common Misconceptions

As a management trainer, I am often asked ‘how can I deal with difficult employees?’ My response is to challenge the assumptions contained within the question and to address a number of misconceptions.

1. Managers do not ‘deal’ with people

The use of terms such as ‘deal’ are quite revealing about the psychology of the person asking the question. To deal is to contract, to reach an arrangement, to trade or to undertake a transaction. Whilst all relationships are indeed some form of contract in which transactions take place, trade-offs are made and arrangements are agreed; if we perceive a relationship in such a way, it results in a ‘what is in it for me mentality?’ Managers deal with problems, they deal with issues and challenges, but they do not ‘deal’ with people.

2. Difficult employees

The term ‘difficult employee’ is often used in the context of an underperforming team member or an individual who is behaving in a way that is counterproductive. In my experience, it is rare for people to deliberately perform poorly at work; that is not their motivation.

Poor performance is usually the consequence of the absence of some knowledge, skills or understanding. So called ‘difficult employees’ or ‘difficult people’ have simply learned a set of behaviours that they believe helps to protect them in certain situations. Why is it that Janagi is a pleasant and helpful person when socialising with friends, yet aggressive and disruptive at work? How can this be the same person?

The answer is that in one context she knows and understands what to do and what is expected of her. In the other context, she is uncertain and lacks the understanding, knowledge or skills and uses certain behaviours to cover up these deficiencies.

3. Managers manage employees

When managers perceive people as ‘employees’, ‘human resources’ or worse still ‘problems’ rather than as people and individuals, the nature of the relationship focuses on the transactional, the contractual or the ‘trade-offs’. Transactions cannot be inspired; contracts cannot be motivated, and ‘trade-offs’ cannot be trained and developed.

Managers need to adopt a people paradigm and not a ‘dealer’ paradigm.

4. Asking ‘how?’

‘How’ is the wrong question to ask. A better question would be to ask ‘why?’. Why are they adopting the specific behaviours that are causing the difficulties?’ Before it is possible to influence their choice of behaviour, it is first necessary to understand why they have adopted it in the first place. Only once the root cause has been understood, can we begin to explore the ‘how’ question.

Dealing with Difficult Employees

People will have learned over time that certain behaviours help them to achieve their goals. If their goal is to avoid having their lack of knowledge or understanding exposed, they may well have learned to be aggressive, evasive or confrontational which serves as a distraction technique. Rather than admit to a weakness or to a fault, people often use a set of defensive behaviours: some might be a form of aggression such as sarcasm, or some form of withdrawal such as indifference or apathy.

When ‘dealing with difficult employees’, managers need to switch their focus to influencing behaviours. With few exceptions, managers are looking for the person to either exhibit less of certain behaviours (e.g. aggression, sarcasm or indifference) or more of others (cooperation, constructive dialogue, or enthusiasm). Managers need to learn to use coaching, delegation and feedback to help people to develop and use appropriate behaviours.

Get Qualified

Programmes such as the Chartered Management Institute’s Management & Leadership and Coaching & Mentoring qualifications provide an ideal framework for managers to learn to manage people. The flexible, modular programmes provide cost-effective, practical tools and techniques for managers to develop their skills and increase their performance. Available worldwide through Exponential Training, managers have the flexibility to complete a qualification without having to attend any classes or college. With our new distance learning (online) delivery method, distance is not a barrier to learning and you can complete a qualification at a time and pace to suit your own personal/ working commitments.

Unlike most other programmes, our students can become Affiliate members of one of the world’s leading professional institutes for management, joining over 80,000 likeminded managers. In addition, students have access to a huge online learning resource and can attend network meetings organised by the Chartered Management Institute and have the ability to work towards becoming a Chartered Manager.

For further information regarding our professional qualifications, click here.

John Moore has over 20 years experience of training and developing Managers, Coaches, Consultants and businesses. As Managing Director of Exponential Training, John researches, speaks, blogs and writes about how to improve performance. He also designs and delivers engaging, fun and interactive learning programmes. John is a Fellow Chartered Manager and has worked with managers and organisations in over 20 different countries.


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