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10 Things managers should know about difficult employees

Managers have a lot on their plate and managing people is probably one of the most time intensive activities.

20 June, 2019 min read

MASERU: Every work environment, just like any society or community, will always have different people who display different dispositions. There will always be difficult employees in every work environment. Difficult employees are known for causing disruption to the workplace, but if a manager can take some time to look beyond the behavior there is much more going on than their behavior would dictate. Understanding these underlying characteristics can help managers when coaching their difficult employees. The key issue is always do managers have the time and/or the interest in working with difficult employees. Managers have a lot on their plate and managing people is probably one of the most time intensive activities. There are some employees who managers will be able to turn around while others need to be exited. It can take time to figure this out and along with being good task managers we must become adept at managing people and behaviors which puts us into an ?armchair psychologist? mode..

Difficult employees are typically unhappy or negative in general

Getting to the root of this to help them become aware of and understand how this plays into their performance may be significant in their transformation. This can also be a good opportunity for managers to see who is coachable and who is not. How can we as managers figure this out? Below are 10 secrets of difficult employees that some may, or may not be willing to admit, while others remain completely unaware of them. A tuned in manager who can help surface these traits and deal with them head on will be much more successful in turning that employee from a difficult one to an engaged performer.

They want to be liked

Just like most people, difficult employees want to be liked. It seems to be a contrast when you look at their behavior but they do want to be liked and fit in with the organization. Generally they get attention and have a loyal band of followers which satisfies their need to be liked.How to handle this: Speak to the employee one on one. Talk to them about their self-brand and how their behavior has created that self-brand. It is also a great time to talk about the value of being respected over being liked as that will carry an employee much further in their career.

They want to be noticed

The best thing a manager can do is to really highlight the good performance attributes of difficult employees, while coaching the not so good attributes. It is important for difficult employees to know that they are positively contributing from a work perspective. If the good they do is ignored and only the negative is talked about, just like a mischievous child, they will gravitate towards that which gets them recognition.How to handle this: As a manager, make sure you are tuned into the right things and not just focused on the bad behaviors. This is another opportunity to talk about self-brand by asking what they want to be recognized or known for. Getting noticed for the right things should always be the end goal.

They are hard on themselves

What you hear difficult employees complaining about is just the camel nose under the tent of what goes on in their mind. They tend to dwell on their own mistakes and in an effort to self soothe, point out the mistakes of others. There is a saying, the way someone behaves says more about them than it does about the situation. This couldn?t be truer with difficult employees. The way they interact with their external environment is a good indication of the way they treat themselves.How to handle this: I think it is important to turn the tables and ask employees if they were coaching an employee in this situation what would they say. I remember earlier in my career I made a mistake that caused an issue between managers. When my manager called me to discuss with me, I told him that there was nothing he could say to me that would be any worse than what I already said to myself. He said nothing more to me. These types of conversations give insight to how connected employees are to their behavior.

They are emotional

They demand perfection from themselves and become emotionally abusive when they miss the mark. They also demand perfection from their environment and the people within it and feel the need to emotionally react when things don?t go as planned. This emotional reactivity may come from passion, perfectionism or a need to be noticed. These emotional outbursts are their default setting. They lack the emotional intelligence necessary to be respected colleagues even when they are good at what they do.How to handle: This takes a lot of coaching. Emotional intelligence isn?t something that you can necessarily teach, but you can provide tools and awareness to help employees recognize and change their default setting.

They are sensitive

Going along with emotional they are sensitive and get their feelings hurt easily. They are tuned into the negative things and can easily pull them out of any interaction. Their sensitivity is generally what drives their interactions and prompts them to react emotionally.How to handle this: People who are sensitive tend to take feedback well from those they feel have their best interest at heart. There needs to be a sense of trust. The more you can cultivate that type of a relationship as a manager the more receptive your employees will be.

They are passionate

Actually emotional, sensitive and passionate go hand in hand. They really do care about creating a good work place but their habit of focusing on negative, looking for ways they have been slighted and creating a disturbance are all rooted in their passion. They want to be noticed, they want to be heard, and they want to feel valued. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, they are passionate about what they think and feel.How to handle this: Again, creating awareness over behavior and how that is perceived by others is key here. Passion is wonderful when channeled in the right way but it can be destructive otherwise.

They are socially smart

Although difficult employees lack emotional intelligence they are typically very smart when it comes to social intelligence. They are very adept at manipulating a group of people, department or even entire organizations with their antics. They know who to engage, how to get grapevine communication going and how to tip a culture. Typically they are socially adept enough to know how far they can push things without causing too much self-risk.How to handle this: Do not ignore this behavior or give someone a pass. Call them out on it. Once an employee sent me a snarky email with the subject line, ?I am confused?. I responded (to All) stating that I didn?t believe they were confused and let them know that I would be by to discuss their email in person. The employee quickly apologized (to All).

They are competitive

And, they are watching everything their Managers do. I used to refer to this as ?measuring the milk glasses? with my kids. When you pour one child an inch more of milk than the other, it is a clear indication that you like them better. This is what difficult employees do. They measure how managers interact with other team members and use that to determine who the manager likes more. Generally the person they perceive to be in favor will be the target of their campaign.How to handle this: I like to believe that even though life is competitive in general, the only true competition we need to be focused on is with who we were yesterday, always striving to be a better version of yourself. That may be a bit Pollyanna-ish for some but really getting to the root of competitiveness is important. Some competition is good as it can inspire or light a fire under an employee. Too much is bad and can be toxic to an organization.

They are insecure

All of the behavior that we consider difficult, comes from a place of deep insecurity. They aren?t confident enough to be liked or valued on their own merit so they attempt to undermine others (usually those they feel are in favor) to boost their sense of self. To them any attention is positive ? even when the attention is negative.How to handle this: Ask people if their behaviors are aligned with their end goal. If you are afraid of not being liked for instance, is gossiping about your coworkers going to inspire people to like you more. In many cases insecurity causes us to behave in ways that become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

They are afraid

In the end, even difficult employees are operating from a core of fear. They are afraid they won?t be noticed for their contribution, potential, personality or intelligence. They kick up a bunch of dust in hopes to distract the organization from their inadequacies (perceived or real) and focus on broken processes, organizational sabotage and underperforming colleagues.How to handle this: Of course we can?t promise anyone they will have a job. We can work with them to set values, expectations and show them how to be successful. We can also address behaviors that are undesirable. We can let employees know that we are here to support them and that we want them to be successful but in the end success is really up to them.

When coaching these difficult employees it is important to determine which of these behaviors are present and address it head on. Keep bringing them back to what you need or want to see from them. Remind them of why you hired them. Let them know that their behaviors are actually overshadowing their value and if they really want to be a valued player in the company they need to quickly rethink their strategies. Either they can make a change or the organization will make a change. The choice is theirs.

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