"When dealing with people, remember, you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion"
~ Dale Carnegie

"A simple rule in dealing with those who are hard to get along with is to remember that this person is striving to assert his superiority; and you must deal with him from that point of view"
~Alfred Adler

"Business, more than any other occupation, is a continual dealing with the future behaviour of people; it is a continual calculation, an instictive exercise in foresight."
~Henry R. Luce

"If you want to learn how to deal with difficult people, have a few kids"
~ Overheard in a Chicago bar

All managers will have to deal with difficult employees during their careers. It is a chore all managers endure, all managers despise, and few, if any, ever learn to do effectively.

First, there will always be difficult employees. In fact, I have observed that what we often deem to be "difficult" or "odd" behaviour in a person is really present in order to help this person maintain their psychological balance. "Difficult" people in this context are the people we don't know how to deal with us or those who are difficult for us to deal with due to (perceived or otherwise) them being stubborn, arrogant, oversensitive, or any trait that needs a special type of treatment Second, it's your job as the manager to deal with them. If you don't deal the problem, it will only get worse and impact the lives of those around you (and the subject employee) who would be looking to you for leadership.

Why Are Difficult Employees Like That?

Difficult employees are that way simply because it is a behavior that has worked for them in the past. They may not know any other behavior, or, they may choose this behavior when they think it will be most effective. You will be successful in dealing with difficult employees only to the extent that you can make these undesirable behaviors no longer effective for them.

In many ways, it's like dealing with children. If every times a child screams, its parents give it candy, what will the child do the next time it wants candy?

The same is true for the employee who "blows up" whenever anyone disagrees with him. When he does that, people stop disagreeing with him and he thinks he has won.

How Can A Manager Deal With Difficult Employees

1. Evaluate:

It is important when dealing with difficult employees to act quickly. Often you will need to act almost immediately to neutralize a dangerous situation. However, it is always appropriate to think before you act.

Clearly if an employee comes to work with a gun, you will need to act more quickly than when someone complains that another employee is always taking credit for her work. In either case, take the appropriate amount of time to evaluate the situation before you act. You don't want to make it worse.

Recognize that most employees can be "difficult" from time to time. This can be caused by stress on the job or away from it. Some employees are difficult more often than others. It is not always your least-productive employees who are difficult. So take a moment to evaluate each situation for the unique situation it is.

2. Do your homework:

Always act on facts. Don't base your actions on gossip or rumor, or even your own preconceptions and/or opinions. You can't allow yourself to be anything but impartial. The person(s) spreading the gossip is a difficult employee in their own way and must be dealt with when the immediate need has passed.

If you have not seen the inappropriate behavior yourself, look into it. Ask the people reportedly involved. Collect all the facts you can before you act. Don't use the fact that you haven't seen the inappropriate behavior as an excuse to delay doing something. It is important to act promptly.

Make sure you aren't part of the problem. It will be much more difficult to remain calm and impartial in confronting the difficult behavior if you are partly responsible. If that's the case, be sure you acknowledge your role in it, at least to yourself.

3. Develop a plan:

You're a manager. You know the value of planning. This situation is no different.

You need to plan the timing of the confrontation. You need to select a quiet, private place where you won't be interrupted. You need to decide whether you need to have others, like an HR representative, present in the meeting. Plan the confrontation and then make it happen.

When you have prepared, it is time to act. You do not need to act impulsively, but you must act quickly. The longer an inappropriate behavior is allowed to continue, the harder it will be to change it or stop it.

4. Confront the problem:

Don't put it off. It may not be pleasant, but it's an important part of your job. It will not "fix itself". It can only get worse. You have planned this confrontation. Now you need to execute.

5. Deal with the behavior, not the person:

Your goal is to develop a solution, not to "win". Focus on the inappropriate behavior; don't attack the person. Use "I" statements like "I need everybody on the team here on time so we can meet our goals" rather than "you" statements like "you are always late".

Don't assume the inappropriate behavior is caused by negative intent. It may be from fear, confusion, lack of motivation, personal problems, etc.

This is the important part; the part most managers never get right: Give the other person a chance to develop a solution to the problem. They are more likely to "own" the solution if they are at least partially responsible for developing it.

6. Try to draw out the reasons behind the behavior:

As you talk with the difficult employee, actively listen to what they say. Stay calm and stay positive, but remain impartial and non-judgmental. Ask leading questions that can't be answered in one or two words.

Don't interrupt. When you do respond to the difficult employee, remain calm.

Summarize back to them what they just said, "so what I understand you are saying is.....", so they know you are actually listening to them.

If you can find out from the difficult employee what the real source of the inappropriate behavior is, you have a much better chance of finding a solution.

Sometimes these confrontations will go smoothly, or at least rapidly, to a conclusion.

Other times it will require several sessions to resolve the problem.

7. Repeat as necessary

Minor problems, like being late for work, you may be able to resolve with a simple chat in your office with the employee. An office bully, who has used that behavior successfully since elementary school, may need more than one confrontation before a solution can be reached. Be patient. Don't always expect instant results. Aim for continuous improvement rather than trying to achieve instant success.

8. Know when you are in over your head:

Sometimes the underlying issue with a difficult employee will be beyond your capabilities. The employee may have psychological problems that require professional help, for example. Learn when to keep trying and when to refer the employee to others for more specialized help. Your company may have an EAP (employee assistance plan) or you may need to use resources from the community.

9. Know when you are at the end:

While the goals is always to reach a mutually acceptable solution that resolves the difficult employees inappropriate behavior and keeps your team at full strength, sometimes that is not possible. When you reach an impasse and the employee is not willing to change his or her behavior then you need to begin terminations procedures in accordance with your company's policies.

Coming to a Solution

The desired result from confronting a difficult employee's inappropriate behavior is an agreed upon solution, and the inappropriate behavior will continue unless you and the employee agree upon said solution. You will get more buy in and greater results if the employee plays a role in crafting the strategy on how to get there.

Your employees will always needs to know what is inappropriate about their behavior just as much as they also need to know what is appropriate behavior. The need for a manager to communicate clearly is always high, but it is especially important in these situations. Make very sure the employee understands the requirements, what is expected of him, and, if necessary, the consequences.

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