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How to handle difficult employees in the workplace

An important skill in management is handling people who are difficult. It’s possible to do so skilfully and achieve a harmonious result but let’s face it, by its very nature the situation is not easy, and it’s a rare manager or boss or HR practitioner who finds it enjoyable.

What do we mean by a “difficult” person?

How about one or more of the following:

  • They won’t listen to you?
  • They won’t do what they’ve been asked to do?
  • They do as they’ve been asked but don’t (or won’t) do it the way you’d like it done?
  • They seeming cooperative but somehow always have a reason for going their own way? (‘surface compliant’)

You always know when you’re experiencing difficult behaviour (in that sense, it’s easy to spot) but like ice cream, it comes in different flavours and the secret to tackling it successfully is to first understand what kind you’re faced with.

A step by step approach

First of all, focus on what you’re trying to do. Clue: it is NOT to ‘stop this person being difficult’. That’s a sweep it under the carpet approach. Stopping someone saying or doing something is easy, especially if you’re the boss. But stopping them arriving in the same ‘difficult’ place when the circumstances repeat themselves is not so simple. Underneath difficult behaviour is a conflict and your aim is to the sort the conflict so that it doesn’t happen again. So…

  • Listen – You need to understand where the behaviour is coming from, the ‘why’. To do that, pay attention. Encourage them to talk and tell you more. The more information you have, the quicker and better you’ll understand what’s really going on.
  • Acknowledge – If you’ve heard of active listening, use it. If not, find out about it. So-called difficult behaviour usually comes with high emotion. You’re not agreeing with what they’re saying, just showing that you’ve heard and understood. Do that and the emotional temperature of the situation will start to drop. Try the following techniques: paraphrasing (“So what you’re saying is...”), summarising (“So, the important points for you are…”) and reflecting their feelings back to them (“Sounds as if you’re worried about...”)
  • Explore – You’ve heard what they’ve said, now you need to hear what they’re not saying. You need to check that there’s nothing else going on for them. Ask questions to understand why they think what they think. If they ask you questions, so much the better because now you’re in a conversation (which is much better than an argument or shouting match).
  • Inform – if there’s anything you’ve heard so far that is factually incorrect, offer them the relevant facts or information. You’re not correcting opinions, just facts and data.
  • Agree – By now you’re talking, things are calmer, the conversation is about facts, it’s time to agree to move forward. Sometimes that will be an agreement to disagree (especially if the conflict is opinion-based) but often the requirements of the job or task offer a guide to what is appropriate behaviour in future and what isn’t.

Remember, most ‘difficult’ people don’t see themselves as difficult. They usually just think they’re right. And they may be (that’s worth bearing in mind for step 5). In other words, their basic attitude to the situation may the same as yours! So, it’s not a fight to the death, your pride or reputation is not at stake, it’s just a communication problem. And the solution to those is always, always, communicate more.

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