How to Deal with Difficult Behaviour

All managers will have to deal with difficult employees during their careers. There will always be difficult employees and as manager it is your job to deal with them, if you don’t deal the problem, it will only get worse.

Why are difficult employees like that?

Difficult employees are that way simply because it is a behaviour that has worked for them in the past. They may not know any other behaviour or they may choose this behaviour 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 behaviours no longer effective for them. In many ways, it’s like dealing with children. If every time a child screams, its parents give it sweets, what will the child do when it wants sweets? It will scream, of course. 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 ?

It is important when dealing with difficult employees to act quickly. There may be times when you will need to act almost immediately to neutralise 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. 

Recognise 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. 

Always act on facts. Don’t base your actions on gossip or rumour. A person spreading the gossip is a difficult employee in their own way. If you have not seen the inappropriate behaviour yourself, investigate it. Ask the people involved. Collect all the facts you can before you act. 

If you didn’t see the inappropriate behaviour yourself this is not an excuse to delay doing something.It is important to act promptly. 

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

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 behaviour is allowed to continue, the harder it will be to change it or stop it. 

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.

Deal with the behaviour, not the person. Your goal is to develop a solution, not to “win”. Focus on the inappropriate behaviour; 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 behaviour is caused by negative intent. It may be from fear, confusion, lack of motivation, personal problems, etc. 

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. 

Try to draw out the reasons behind the behaviour. As you talk with the difficult employee, actively listen to what they say. Stay calm and stay positive, while remaining 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. Summarise back to them what they just said, “so what I understand you are saying is”, so they know you are listening to them. 

If you can find out from the difficult employee what the real source of the inappropriate behaviour 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. 

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 bad behaviour successfully since high 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.

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 specialised help. 

Know when you are at the end. While the goals are always to reach a mutually acceptable solution that resolves the difficult employees’ inappropriate behaviour 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 behaviour then you need to begin termination procedures in accordance with your company’s policies. 

The desired result from confronting a difficult employee’s inappropriate behaviour is an agreed upon solution. You know that this inappropriate behaviour will continue unless you and the employee agree on a solution. The employee needs to know what is inappropriate about their behaviour and they also need to know what appropriate behaviour is. The need for a manager to communicate clearly is always high. It is especially important in these situations. Make very sure the employee understands the requirements and the consequences.

If you would like to discuss any problems you are facing regarding challenging behaviour, or would like help in structuring the conversation, this is one of the may areas in which a Business Mentor can help. Contact Kate Wilde for further information. 


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