How to Deal With Difficult Employees
I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand that one person who is forever complaining about something.
The person who acts helpless and feeble when it’s time for them to do their job or contribute to the team. To top it off, they seem like an Eeyore pretty much every day.
Sometimes it’s multiple people, making it exponentially worse. How do you deal with these difficult employees? What are some of the recurring thoughts you have about them?
I’m going to dig deeper into what you can do to navigate working with, for, and managing people who show up in this way. By the end of this you will have a different perspective on this type of scenario. You will have identified new approaches to take in creating an improved experience for yourself, and them as well.
Difficult Employee Type #1: The Othering of Eeyore
Are the Eeyore types really helpless or is it an act? I mean, they got hired somehow, right? Someone saw value in what they had to offer, yet it can be so hard to see. You avoid them like the plague so often, because they get on your last nerve, and you really don’t notice that you don’t know much about them.
The distance created by avoiding them, in some ways dehumanizes them. Yes, you read that correctly, dehumanize. See, when you think of someone as deficient or less than, you begin to other them. That “othering” is the beginning of treating people as less than human.
It’s that othering which has been the source of the various instances of slavery and genocide in human history. Let’s be clear here, I’m not at all suggesting that’s what you’re up to or about, just pointing out the path othering can lead to.
So if othering isn’t the impact you want to have, what impact do you want to have with these individuals?
What do you think is behind the helpless or feeble persona? If they were hired and seen as competent, what might have changed? To understand these things would require you to talk to them, on a human level.
Engage in general conversation to learn who they are as a person, how they feel about their job, what their home life situation might be. What if they have stuff going on at home that distracts them at work and they’re just treading water to get by? What if they just lost their confidence along the way and are struggling to regain it?
By now you might be thinking “I’m not here to make friends!” While that may be true, consider how much time you spend in the workplace, commuting to and from. Add in the time spent from waking up to running out the door. With all of that you’re near 12 hours of time committed to the workplace. Having that much daily time invested, if the people you work with aren’t considered friends, or at least people in which you have a solid relationship with, how come?
I know many people believe in the idea of a separation between the work version of themselves and the home version of themselves. Through coaching leaders I’ve found the reminder that there’s only one you to be helpful. Sure there are aspects of your personality that may be inappropriate for the workplace, but you are you everywhere you go. The habits and patterns that comprise you don’t just magically vanish when you switch environments. Those personality traits you value, when seen in others, attracts you to them and that’s how friendships develop.
There’s a genuine interest to get to know those people better, building a bond that includes support and feedback. Think about the benefits those bonds and relationships have on your work products within and across teams and hierarchies. There’s a level of trust that exists, to which I covered a bit in Why Work Sucks: Stop Fixing Everything Yourself, that has you invested to the point you’re willing to put in the effort to support someone through whatever challenges they are facing.
What’s getting in your way of connecting with Eeyore at that level? What might it look like to put the effort in to do so? Through that effort, what support do you have to offer, in order to build their confidence in providing the value they were hired to provide? This approach is rooted in human connection and provides a level of compassion, empathy and care.
What if you’re the Eeyore, and someone made this effort to connect with you, how might your experience shift? What training might be needed to move the needle?
Difficult Employee Type #2: The Negativity of Nelly
A slightly different version Eeyore is Nelly (no not the rapper), and Nelly is the biggest complainer. Nelly is not meant to be gender specific either, that’s just the commonly used name to reference a professional complainer or naysayer.
There’s the element of unhappiness, like Eeyore, combined with what seems to be blatant effort to not produce tangible value in the workplace. Using the same questions as you did thinking about Eeyore, what opportunities do you see for connecting with Nelly? Building that relationship is start, but tactically how do you navigate all the complaining? There’s some deeper learning to be done with them!
Nelly and other complainers want to be heard and may have felt unheard somewhere in their life. Maybe they’ve had great ideas that were squashed in the past. Whatever their experience has been, they want to be heard and haven’t found a successful way to make it happen. Here’s the opportunity to create a different experience of Nelly’s for yourself, show you’re listening and ask questions. The listening piece may be where you can make the first and biggest shift.
You were taught the importance of communication early in your life, had it reinforced throughout, and the part stressed was the sharing of information. Giving others an opportunity to share wasn’t defined well, and it shows when conflicts arise.
Sharing information is one thing, and ensuring the message was received as intended is a missing part of the process for you and so many others. Think about it, how often do you reflect back what you heard before responding to someone?
How often do you share important information, and ask what the receiver heard in what you just shared?
Brain science tells us that the brain will fill in gaps to make sense of the information it’s processing, and to do so it will make assumptions based on the past. Assumptions, incorrect ones at that, are what fuel misunderstandings and conflict.
Getting back to Nelly (still not the rapper), this becomes your first step. When they have something to complain out, reflect back the main points of what you heard them say. “Nelly, I wanna make sure I understood you correctly. A-B-C is happening, and you feel X-Y-Z about it. Did I understand you correctly?” That show’s Nelly you understood them, while providing them the opportunity to correct parts you didn’t quite understand, most importantly they start to feel heard.
Now you’re prepared to empower Nelly and Eeyore, with questions!
For all the complaints, you can be sure time has been spent thinking of potential solutions. You’re looking for a solution for how to deal with a difficult employee, aren’t you? So why not ask? Yes, YOU, ask!!
For the same reason you avoid Eeyore and Nelly, so do others and thus their potential solutions to the problems they complain about go unheard. More effort is spent avoiding them or finding creative ways to tell them to shove it, than actually hearing them out. Here’s another secret: the more you ask for their solutions to complaints, you’re conditioning them to avoid complaining to you specifically without also providing a solution.
“What potential solutions have you come up with so far” is a great starting question to tap into their wisdom. From here you can explore the merits of their ideas, while also adding your two cents. Through this process you not only take steps towards addressing the problems they’re complaining about, you also start building a relationship with them and can become someone they partner with.
This dynamic translates to empowerment for them, and leadership in practice for you.
How to Deal With Difficult Employees: Become a Leader
I’m a fan of definitions because they help clarify the topic at hand, and ensure we stay in sync through the conversation. They also help to minimize instances of misunderstandings.
Let’s look at the Oxford dictionary definitions of Management and Leadership.
- Management – noun: The process of dealing with or controlling things or people.
- Leadership – noun: The action of leading a group of people or an organization.
If you lead a project, supervise or manage a team, you’re in a leadership position. Your title may have something like supervisor or manager in it, but make no mistake, you’re a leader. Don’t believe me? Examine the definitions above. Is your role only to deal with or control people? If so, you’re reinforcing a paradigm of people following orders and not think for themselves.
That’s what micromanaging looks like in practice. This is NOT how you deal with difficult employees.
Leadership is about empowering and growing people, which is how you are able to shift an Eeyore and Nelly in how they show up. Even better, your positional title becomes irrelevant when it comes to leading.
Whether you report to, are peers with, or have Eeyore and Nelly reporting to you, leading them to empowerment and growing their confidence or skills is possible. Thinking from this perspective, what becomes possible for you in your experience with Eeyore and Nelly (the rapper will have you bob your head to the beat)?
Thinking of yourself as a leader, what might need to change as you approach your work? What skills of yours need some polishing or expansion? How is leadership approached in your organization, and what barriers might there be to address? When asking how to deal with difficult employees, the answers to these questions will help you to start fixing what you see as problems yourself, and empower others to do the same.
Difficult Employee Type #3: Slick Steve
You know the person that’s good at manipulating everyone to do their work for them, with intention? The one who, like Eeyore and Nelly, also gets on your last nerve? What do you suppose you can do with that personality?
What can you apply from your understanding of navigating Eeyore’s, Nelly’s and leadership? The process really doesn’t have to change. What motivates Steve to show up in this way? What are the impacts that Steve wants to have on the team, and how do they know they’re accomplishing that goal?
How might you share your experience of the impact Steve creates for you?
The Team Chain Gang
We started out talking about Eeyore’s and Nelly’s (fortunately there’s only one rapper), and how they get on your last nerve. If you’re looking for how to deal with difficult employees, questioning what’s behind their complaining and naysaying behaviors, leading to ways you could shift their perspectives and your own with questions.
With that perspective shift for yourself, you can see the importance in differentiating between managing and leading.
Using leadership skills such as empowering others, it doesn’t matter what your role or title is, to have leadership impact. Even in the case of Steve’s trying to get over by pawning off their work, there’s a new opportunity.
That opportunity is to be a leader. In stepping up to lead, you are now doing your part to support the team (chain) being stronger, because a team (chain) is only as strong as the weakest link, and a break in the team (chain) is rendered useless.
What steps will you take to ensure the team (chain) doesn’t break?