Nearly every manager has to deal with at least one employee who doesn’t fit into a mould. It’s an almost inevitable part of the manager’s professional landscape: there’s generally that one (or more) employee can underperform, or is difficult to deal with, or has a hard time getting along with others, or means well but just doesn’t ever quite achieve what’s expected.
And the unfortunate thing is, most managers can be held hostage, spending a disproportionate amount of time, thought and emotional energy on a difficult situation on both sides.
Here, then, are five things that excellent managers do when confronted with a difficult employee – things that keep them from getting sucked into an endless vortex of ineffectiveness and frustration:
Often, when an employee is difficult, we stop paying attention to what’s actually going on. We’re irritated, it seems hopeless, and we’ve already decided what we think about the employee – so we just turn our attention to other things, out of a combination of avoidance and self-protection. But the best managers increase attentiveness when someone’s not doing well. They know their best shot at improving the situation lies in having the clearest possible understanding of the situation – including knowing the person’s point of view. Simply listening can save the day! You may hear about a real problem that’s not the employee’s fault that you can solve; the employee may start acting very differently once he or she feels heard; you may discover legitimate issues he or she has that need to be addressed.
Ultimately, your kindness and empathy can be a remedy.
Give clear feedback
Most managers will spend months, even years, working with underperforming employees without ever giving actual feedback about what they need to be doing differently.
Yes, giving tough feedback is one of the most uncomfortable things a manager has to do. But great managers learn to do it well, and then they do it. For example, a good approach could be one that makes the other person as comfortable as possible in a tete-a-tete meeting, while giving him the specific information they need in order to improve!
If you say you’re not OK with a behavior, don’t sometimes be OK with it. Employees look to see what you do more than what you say. If, for instance, you tell employees that it’s critical they submit a certain report by a certain time, and then you’re sometimes upset and sometimes not upset when they don’t do it…the less-good employees generally won’t do it. Pick your shots – only set standards you’re actually willing to hold to – and then hold to them!
Set consequences if things don’t change
If things still aren’t improving at this point, good managers get specific. They say some version of, “I still believe you can turn this around. Here’s what turning it around would look like. If I don’t see that behavior by x date, here’s what will happen”. If employees don’t believe their behavior will have any real negative or positive impact – why would they change?
Know that your employee has an option to cause change and that their change is beneficial in clear ways. If you’re committed to this employee you may be able to cause significant behavior change with a remediation plan and small steps
Don’t poison the well
All too often, poor managers substitute bad-mouthing the problem employee to all and sundry rather than taking the steps we’ve outlined above. No matter how difficult an employee may be, good managers don’t trash- talk to other employees. It creates an environment of distrust and back-stabbing, it pollutes others’ perception of the person, and it makes you look unprofessional. Just don’t do it, keep the air around you clean!
If you learn to use these approaches when you have a difficult employee, then no matter how things turn out, you’ll end up knowing that you’ve done your best in a tough situation. And that may be the best stress reducer of all!!