When dealing with difficult employees, intelligent leaders ensure they understand the roots of the derailing behaviors. They assure the employees of their support and create action plans through which they outline their expectations and the potential consequences of failure. They also establish schedules for check-ins and progress assessments.

Dealing with difficult employees is part of a leader’s job, but it can be challenging for leaders who dislike and shy away from conflict as managing rule-breakers and toxic people can ruin one’s positive energy.

Leadership coaching deals with disruptive personalities routinely. Leadership coaches are well-versed in the arts of conflict management, mediation, arbitration, and resolution. Here are a few tips on how leaders can deal with difficult people who keep ruining productivity levels.

flies in the ointment

No one likes flies in the ointment. 

What Is a Difficult Employee? 

Difficult employees are people who create friction at the workplace, diverting the focus of coworkers and negatively impacting organizational cultures. A difficult employee is someone who:

  • Repeatedly fails to show up on time
  • Distracts others from doing their best work
  • Fails to engage, lacks motivation, and finds no satisfaction in their work
  • Thrives on conflict, thus threatening and intimidating others
  • Does not tolerate others’ opinions, talents, and attitudes
  • Consistently fails to meet deadlines and expectations
  • Is a source of gossip and toxic behavior
  • Acts rudely or violently towards others
  • Does not care about the rules and procedures that constitute the foundations of organizational culture
  • Is not a team player and has trouble building positive work relationships with others

Why Is Someone a Difficult Employee?

Intelligent leaders understand that, with few exceptions, difficult people are the products of specific professional and personal circumstances. Innate personalities are seldom to blame for the behaviors most difficult employees display.

Executive coaching values the skill of active listening. By engaging in conversations with problem employees and other stakeholders, leaders can uncover the back stories of the derailing behaviors, creating opportunities to resolve the issues with empathy and understanding.

Many personal and professional reasons can turn people into meaner, more destructive versions of themselves.

  • Stressful professional relationships can elicit reactions of defiance and disengagement.
  • A poor work-life balance can take a disproportionate toll on employees’ and leaders’ mental health.
  • When mental and physical health becomes a problem, the added stress can translate to frustration and defiance.
  • Family problems can constitute a significant psychological distraction for anyone.
  • Being overwhelmed with work can cause some employees to lash out.

How Can You Deal with Difficult Employees? 

Business coaching teaches leaders that when dealing with difficult people, the key is to defuse conflict, set realistic goals, create action plans, and follow up consistently.

Uncovering the Causes

Leaders should never shy away from digging deep when it comes to difficult employees. Scheduling a personal meeting and asking questions are the best ways to discover the roots of derailing behaviors.

Ask employees about their problems at home, relationships with coworkers, and whether they feel their work is overwhelming. Let them know you’re willing to take proactive steps to address the possible issues they’re facing.

Setting Goals

To wrap up their conversations with problem employees, leaders should establish mutually acceptable and achievable goals. Leaders must define the changes they would like employees to make and agree on timelines. They should also clarify their expectations, the tools they’ll use to measure progress, and the consequences of failure.

make it happen

Clear goals spur commitment and progress. 

Handling Conflict

Derailing employee behaviors may stem from conflicts among coworkers. In such cases, leaders must act as mediators or arbitrators.

  • Mediators bring the parties in conflict together, looking to devise a mutually agreeable solution to the problem.
  • Arbitrators listen to the arguments of the two sides, make decisions in their absence, and offer judgments from positions of authority.

It falls to leaders to decide which of these two roles they should assume depending on the nature of the conflicts.

Documenting and Following Up on the Process

Documenting an action plan allows leaders and employees to avoid misunderstandings. Having a well-documented process may also be handy for leaders should a conflict take a legal turn.

As part of the process, leaders should establish clear schedules for check-ins where they can exchange feedback with employees and assess progress.

To help difficult employees clean up their acts, leaders should explain the impacts of their behaviors on their organizations. Perceiving the process as another effort to help employees reach their full potential may also be helpful.


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