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How to manage “difficult” employees

HR Advice

I am going to start this blog with a controversial statement: there are no difficult employees, just frustrated managers who haven’t found a way of motivating and engaging them yet!

I firmly believe that the vast majority of us go to work to do a good job and get on with our managers and colleagues.  But we are all human and life has its ups and downs.  We spend a large proportion of our waking hours at work and our emotions can produce behaviour that may be seen as “difficult” by others.  Does this resonate with you?

So, when you are the manager having to handle the difficult behaviour, where do you start?  Tell them to leave their personal life at the door? Let them pour their heart out for 10 minutes then rush them back to work? Discipline them? When I first started out in HR, people used to say “you can only manage the behaviour”.  After 20 years of HR experience and a few difficult times of my own to handle, I have come to the conclusion that you have to manage the whole person in order to be a really effective manager. 

Management is hard and people are complex, so I am not going to try and give you the whole tool kit in one blog.  However, in the next few paragraphs I will cover some insights from cognitive theory, tips about style and personality, and mention some practical things you can do to manage and motivate ‘difficult’ employees.

The field of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) provides us with some really useful concepts here. It is based on the theory that thoughts, feelings and actions are all interrelated and we can get caught up in a negative cycle.  Our negative actions or words are usually driven by negative emotions.  These, in turn, tend to be a result of a negative way of thinking or reacting to something that has happened.  The CBT therapist will help their patient to break out of their negative thought processes and choose how to act in response to tricky events in daily life. 

Now, I am not saying that as a manager you must become a therapist, but understanding the root of the presenting behaviour can be critical to changing it.  The employee may not even realise this negative triangle of thoughts-emotions-actions is happening so it may need unpicking.  Try asking some open questions like “tell me where that’s coming from?” or “is there a different way of thinking about it?” I have been prone to a bit of catastrophising in my time and it is very difficult to look for other explanations when “the world is against me”.  As a manager you can try to “re-frame” (use more neutral language) to influence the way your employee thinks about a situation, and therefore how they feel and act as a result.  Incidentally, it can also work the other way around, but it’s tricky to do. Undertaking a positive action can make you feel better and improve your thoughts; a positive cycle.  This is one of the ideas behind undertaking selfless acts of kindness.

What about personality clashes?  Diversity in the broadest sense of the word is really healthy for any company.  Yes, everyone needs to be signed up the values and aims of the organisation.  However, a diverse range of skills, approaches and contributions is often the key to success, especially in a creative business or a community service. Differences in working style preference can be a cause for tension, and opposites do not usually attract!  Tools based on personality profiling such as Myers Briggs or Insights Colours can be useful in giving teams a better understanding of how colleagues like to work.  I have experienced some great collaborations with intuitive, spontaneous colleagues who welcome my structured completer-finisher tendencies.  However, I have also been upset by the task-focussed go-getters who haven’t considered my desire for harmony and team work.  You don’t need to pay for a profiling exercise to understand your preferences or those of your team, but do be open to exploring them.  It may be that the perceived difficult behaviour is a reaction to the employee having their preferred approach challenged or belittled.  With most tasks and projects, there is no right or wrong approach, just different.  There are some useful resources freely available on the internet to help gain insight into working styles – sign up to my contact list below and I will share some with you.

So, I promised some practical tips:

  • Take time to understand what’s behind the perceived difficult behaviour and don’t jump to conclusions or assume they are just having “personal issues”;
  • Use neutral language to help the individual re-think a problem or situation which may change their emotions and actions (know when it is best to refer them to a counsellor for professional help);
  • Get to know your team members’ preferred working style and individuality – reflect on how that might be different from your own (and other team members);
  • Adapt your management style to get the best out of each individual (e.g. someone with a strong thinker preference will need detailed facts to commit to an action);
  • Reward the behaviour you want to see (e.g. with a desirable project/task, and thanks for good work – they will be doing some, look out for it!);
  • Find the individual’s “why” – why did they choose this job? What’s important to them in terms of getting job satisfaction, and try to help them achieve it if you can.

Sometimes “difficult” staff are suffering from being a square peg in a round hole.  If the conversation about “why this job” reveals that it truly doesn’t satisfy them and never will, help them to make a change. Facilitate some shadowing, a transfer, or some personal development to help prepare them to move on (if that’s what they want!).

Last resort option? There will be times when you will need to manage the behaviour.  Depending on the nature of it, you may need to issue a verbal warning or undertake an investigation.  Work out whether it’s a case of “won’t do” or “can’t do”.  If it’s the latter then a performance management process may be required to bring about a positive change.  This topic is a whole new blog in its own right.

So, in summary, remember that actions emotions and thoughts are inextricably linked and the visible negativity may need some unpicking.  Use reframing to help a more positive thought cycle.  Treat employees as individuals and adapt your style and behaviour to get the very best out of them.  Use formal processes as the last resort and help an individual to move on positively if they are in the wrong job.

I hope I have helped you to see “difficult” employees in a new light.  If my blog helps you to get positive results I would love to hear from you.

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