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Manage Difficult Employees to Get Better Results

Employees can be difficult to manage in a variety of ways, and the underlying cause may be stemming from a lack of training, trouble meshing with the team, or any number of other challenges. With the right strategies in place, you can help employees overcome issues that may be getting in the way of their success at work.

Managing difficult employees can be a drain on your company's resources. While the traditional advice of documenting conversations in case you need to terminate employment is key, it's important to think beyond that worst-case scenario and consider how to improve performance. How can you manage difficult employees and actually help them turn around their attitude and work successfully? Here are six strategies that can help you get to the root of the problem and turn difficult employees into star performers.

Focus on Hiring the Best Candidates

Managing difficult employees successfully often starts with the hiring process. Invest in recruiting the best candidates possible. Develop a process that can help identify the right hires. Ask interview questions that help you gain a better understanding of work ethics and explore how a candidate would handle difficult situations or interpersonal conflict at work. Reference checks and other background screening services where legally permissible can help you feel more confident that you’re hiring qualified candidates.


Listen and Ask Questions

The first step managers should take when dealing with an employee facing challenges is to ask questions and listen. An unhappy employee may be acting out for a variety of reasons. For example, an employee who recently relocated for a role might be underperforming and stressed. On further exploration, the issue might actually be related to personal challenges and difficulty getting settled. Helping connect him with resources such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and brainstorming solutions for getting involved in the community could help address the larger problem. Get to the root of what's causing the issue. Listen for cues such as:

  • Unhappiness with the position.
  • Challenges with management or colleagues.
  • Skills-based gaps that could be addressed with training.
  • Outside issues that could be impacting performance.

Focus on Their Strengths

One of the reasons employees underperform is that they may not be suited to their role or a barrier is getting in the way. There’s always the hope that a thorough hiring process can help you gauge whether a candidate has the skills necessary to be successful in the job you’re hiring for, but gaps can happen. Once you've identified the challenge, find ways to align with their strengths. For example, perhaps an employee would thrive on a different team or adjusted schedule. Looking for ways to shift the employee's experience – within the context of the work they need to deliver – could help them be more successful. Playing to an employee's strengths gives an otherwise challenged staff member the opportunity to shine.

Create a Roadmap with Short-Term Wins

A struggling employee who is trying to get back on track can be overwhelming. Consider the case of someone who is perceived to have a poor attitude, such as complaining about tasks or failing to contribute at team meetings. A performance plan might include very manageable, small steps that add up to big changes, such as keeping interactions positive on a day-to-day basis with management or participating once during each team meeting. Setting clear, manageable goals with some short-term wins sets the stage for employees to feel like they're having success and are committing to improving their behavior.

short-term wins

Eliminate Toxic Environmental Contributors

In some cases, the environment can be negatively impacting an employee's performance. For instance, if a good worker has a poor relationship with their manager, their performance might go downhill. In other cases, there can be a mismatch with the team dynamics. It's also possible for you to become frustrated with difficult employees and have that negatively impact your interactions. As a manager, look at your own behavior. Do you find yourself assuming the worst of this employee or passively complaining to others instead of facing challenges head-on? Make sure the environment supports even your most challenging employee's best work and that you're doing everything possible to ensure a positive outcome.

Use Progressive Discipline

Sometimes, despite your best efforts to coach and support employees, situations reach the point where difficult behaviors or bad performance must be addressed. In these situations, progressive discipline can be used to help document the steps being taken as well as reinforce the seriousness of the situation with the employee. Typically, this process starts with a verbal warning and progresses to a written warning, suspension, a final written warning, and ultimately termination. HR departments should consider developing a clear progressive discipline process and consulting an employment attorney or knowledgeable HR partner in situations where termination is being considered.

Learning to manage difficult employees is a key part of running a successful business. Sometimes an employee needs to move on, but often there are interim steps that can turn things around. Dig deep, find the real cause, create innovative solutions geared toward an employee's strengths, and eliminate any toxic dynamics in the environment that could be negatively affecting outcomes.



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