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Your guide to dealing with difficult employees

Dealing with difficult employees is often raised as an issue around our TAB boards. In fact, business owners encounter challenges all the time when it comes to people management. These include managing teams of remote and office workers and dealing with underperforming employees.

Looking and managing people is arguably the most difficult part of being a business owner or leader. Particularly when you find employees ‘difficult.’

A ‘difficult’ employee is often used in relation to a worker ‘who fails to conduct him or herself in a responsible and/or professional manner in the workplace.’ That’s according to and their encyclopaedia on difficult employees.

We know first-hand that many leaders don’t like confronting or addressing this issue. Yet we all know that difficult employees can cause big problems for your business.

Reasons why difficult employees negatively impact your business.

A drain on colleagues

When speaking to our community, a big trend of opinion on this was how difficult employees affect others. Being disruptive can cause other staff to feel intimated or bullied. Harbouring negative opinions about the business can become contagious. Before you know where you are, a difficult employee can be the catalyst towards an increasingly negative company culture.

We know how important company culture is towards the success of your business. If it degrades, staff turnover will increase, and business performance will suffer.

A drain on business performance

If the employee is not meeting their targets or refusing to submit to your authority, they are working against the company vision. Without having your organisation aligned, you will struggle with getting the most productivity out of your people. Especially if the employee does not stick to protocol, is unprofessional and their role is customer-facing. Now you’re getting into the territory of brand reputation and, as Max Crosby-Browne put it, an impact on customer and supplier relationships.

A drain on management time

As a business owner, you have a lot on your plate. You want to be focusing on the strategic direction of the business, not dealing with a difficult employee. The more time you spend doing this, the less you spend driving the business forwards.

Difficult employees aren't all bad

It is worth noting, as some of our business coaches have highlighted, employees perceived as ‘difficult’ can bring positives too. While they might be disruptive, those labelled so, often bring about change. They challenge leaders to review their processes and sometimes, there is a ‘golden nugget’ in what they’re saying. So, it’s important not to just dismiss them. This brings us on to how deal with difficult employees.

How to deal with employees in conflict

Our contributors to this blog were asked about dealing with employees in conflict. Yet these tips can apply to dealing with difficult employees in many contexts.

Act early

A reoccurring piece of advice from our facilitators has been to deal with the issue early. They’ve used phrases such as ‘don’t let it fester’ or ‘don’t delay.’ This is mainly because if a conflict is happening, it will most likely get worse if ignored. So, deal with it straight away! But how?

Understand the facts

Firstly, don’t dive in all guns blazing. Take the time to talk to both or all parties and calmly understand the situation. This will help you understand what level of severity it needs addressing with. For example, if it sounds like a misunderstanding, it will be better to have a informal conversation rather than a firm intervention.

Take it away from the office

Organise a professional and mature conversation but away from the stress of the everyday. This will keep distractions down to a minimum. If they are working remotely, try and make a request to meet face-to-face or from a place away from their desk. Both parties will then feel more relaxed and potentially be more honest and open.

Avoid being emotional

Working with many business owners, we know that emotional decision making can be a problem. When dealing with conflicting employees, make sure to stay rational. Don’t take sides. Remember your credibility is on the line. How you deal with such situations will help to inspire trust and respect with your staff.

Elliot Rich makes a good point – “Treat the situation how you would want to be treated yourself.” Most likely that will be in a rational and mature way. Rather than being controlled by someone else’s emotions.

Be brave

You might be someone who hates addresses awkward or confrontational situations. But as Jonathan Smith puts it – “It just takes 20 seconds of bravery to raise the issue and it'll probably lead to resolution.  If you don't take those 20 seconds of bravery, it will probably cost you loads more in future.”

Dealing with employees you find personally difficult

Employee conflicts and performances aside, sometimes leaders can have a personal grievance against an employee. How do you deal with that?
People management - sitting at laptop

Check yourself first

The first thing to do is to check yourself. Is it your attitude towards that person that is causing the problem? There might be something you can do in your approach or working style to resolve it. David Abbott suggests to also do a sanity check with trusted colleagues. This is not an opportunity to gossip or speak negatively about the person but to gauge whether it’s your problem. If it is, try and address it.

Try and understand

Before ‘jumping to judgement’ as Peter Harris puts it, look to understand the behaviour you find difficult. At TAB we promote DiSC behavioural profiles around our boards. This helps to improve team productivity in the workplace. By knowing a colleague’s personality and working style, you can start to understand it from their perspective.

Find a common ground

Talk to them! Find a level where you can communicate with them. Then, as Jonathan O’Shea suggests, focus on the business’ purpose, and try and find common ground in achieving it.  Making progress there can build respect for one another and your contributions.

Are they the right people?

Once you’ve done all that and there’s still a problem, it might be time to ask this question. Are they a good for our business and its core values? Therefore, effective hiring is so important. At TAB, we often help business owners might the right call in these situations. Read a chapter from 'Timeless Principles of Exceptional Businesses', on 'Getting the Right People in the Right Seats.'

Should ‘difficult’ employees exist?

To finish, here is a final bit of challenging advice raised by Jonathan Smith.

“Don't label people "difficult". The chances are some people find you difficult - just ask your spouse/partner. Instead, aim to have constructive relationships with everyone.


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