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“No man knows how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good.”

-C.S. Lewis

In the workplace, managing difficult employees can be exhausting. If not handled properly, they can rip your team to shreds. Whether it’s your first rodeo or you’re a seasoned manager, you’ve likely encountered these gems. And when the “buck stops with you,” handling such employees is your responsibility – congratulations! As you encounter your next situation, hopefully, you’ll find a few nuggets of wisdom below.

First thing’s first, assess the situation

Despite moving at light speed, it’s important to take a step back and assess the situation. Give some thought to what happened and why. As you do so, work with a high degree of specificity. In this process become laser focused on the behaviors exhibited by the employee. If you only correct a single action, the behavior is likely to continue. Finally, as you collect information, stay rooted in factual accounts.

As a best practice, keep a written account as you work through. Why? There are two primary reasons. First, facts remain intact without over, or under, exaggerating later. Second, your written account becomes your outline when addressing the employee – trust me it helps.

While you assess, it’s natural to plan disciplinary actions. As such, ask one vital question, “If your best employee behaved exactly as your difficult employee, would you be conjuring up the exact same disciplinary actions?” Your obligation in management is to be fair and equitable. Despite the simplicity in this question and exercise, it creates consistency.

Take time to assess your emotions

In some cases, managers move from assessing to immediately addressing the employee. Though you want very little time between situation and feedback, I suggest assessing your emotions first. Without a doubt, difficult employees strike a nerve. It’s important you find which one. Ask yourself what angered you about their behavior and why. Think deeply on this one. Your objective is to remove bias and control your emotions. Remember, you can’t control people, but you can control your reactions.

In some cases, depending on the severity of the situation, I urge you to get a second opinion. Ask a trusted peer – not one of the employee’s coworkers – if you’re overreacting. Request unfiltered feedback, you want to know for sure. Especially if the employee is a repeat offender. We said difficult employees strike a nerve right? Well, repeat offenders wear that nerve out! In such cases, be sure to get a second opinion.

Here comes the fun, time to address the employee

Tim Ferris stated, “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” Your success, or failure, will be defined by your willingness to handle these “uncomfortable conversations.”

Here are 4 points to use in your meeting:

 1)     Review the situation in detail with the employee. As we mentioned earlier, use the written account as your guideline. During this part, ensure you stick to the facts and leave opinions on the sidelines. And never use ‘hearsay’ unless it’s absolutely necessary. Your goal is to identify unacceptable behaviors exhibited by the employee and to correct them. An excellent feedback model is “SBI,” which stands for situation, behavior, and impact.

2)     Try to uncover thinking patterns. It may be like pulling teeth, but it pays in dividends. Understand, thoughts drive behaviors. If you reveal their thinking during the event, you can attempt to reshape this moving forward. Doing so reduces future behavioral occurrences, which means victory!

3)     Set crystal clear expectations. To reduce ambiguity, make them black and white. As their manager, you are tasked with driving very specific outcomes and setting clear expectations will achieve this. After delivering expectations ask them to restate in their words. You want clarity amongst the two of you, so having them restate can prompt calibration and subsequently achieve clarity.

4)     Give them a vote of confidence. Believe it or not, this goes a very long way. Have you ever been told, “I believe in you?” It’s powerful. Coming from you, if done genuinely, you could nip bad behavior completely. Perhaps you exclaim their value on the team when they are meeting expectations. Or you simply say, “I believe you can get this under control.” In any case, this not only can help the cause but can end the meeting positively.

Final thoughts

Dale Carnegie once said, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.” Remind yourself of this as you deal with difficult employees. Also, keep in mind you too are an emotional being. As you navigate through, pay close attention to how your emotions are being displayed. You either control them and improve the situation or lose them and add fuel to the fire.


As always thanks for taking the time to read and I’d love to hear your thoughts below!