10 tips on managing difficult team members

25 Oct


Most of us have at one point in our careers endured the frustration of managing difficult employees, those team members that just seem impossible. Or perhaps we have ourselves been the difficult team members that make people management an agonizing undertaking.

So if you have such members in your team, how do you get past the dilemma of keeping them in your team and them becoming a source of your workplace stress?

This article shares some tips to consider based on my personal managerial experience and observation of other people managers over the years. Highly likely, there are more that we all have to share.

1. Don’t focus on the “difficult”

This may appear the harder part of the challenge since the issue has to do with a team member labelled difficult. On the flip-side, there also is a solution in the “difficult” part. The more your energy is on how this person is difficult, the more your attention will only be locked on that aspect. You know the challenge so let it not be a drain. Instead work out where this person fits into your plan, team and vision. Afterall if they are a part of the team, you may as well derive some value from them.

2. Engage and involve

The natural inclination when we have someone “difficult” in our team is to sideline them. That however does not change anything because these members remain part of the team we are responsible for. As such, we get to a point where we must take a deliberate decision on where they fit into our plans.

One of the most effective ways is to engage these team members and assign tasks or responsibilities to them. In this way, they have no idle time to be spectators and critics. Instead, they become a part of the “other side” which is always exploring solutions and progress for the good of the total entity. They assume responsibility which requires them to deliver as per expectations or else be exposed as contributors to failure and the lack of progress attributed to negativity.

3. Facts, facts and facts

Most of the negative sentiment in the work place derives its fuel from speculation. What toxic team members share as their views or source of authority is usually subjective. When a manager also reacts or responds in the same manner, that is speculatively and subjectively, the negativity is perpetuated.

It therefore becomes imperative that a manager takes a position or makes statements on the basis of fact. This objectivity is critical to suffocate any degree of bias, prejudice or subjectivity. That way, the negative or difficult team member is handicapped when it comes to furthering their agenda of disruption and retrogressive influence. This inevitably also does not give any lifeline to team members that want to fuel “corridor talk” and distract other team members that would rather be focussed on progress.

4. Make your own assessment

Most times the challenge we face is that of judging based on what we have been told. There are always various voices and opinions about individuals, their past, abilities and potential. If this forms the basis of our interaction with the “difficult” team members, we find that our stance often will be prejudiced.

It therefore becomes imperative that even as we take views, we must also formulate our own about the team members. In the end, as managers we have the liberty to determine how we handle our team and all aspects of delivering through them. Our independent assessment then makes it clear what value we can derive from these team members and how they contribute to our overall plan for the unit.

It may well be amusing how much we can benefit from difficult team members if we ascertain what value they potentially can add if managed tactfully.

5. Set expectations

One challenge managers face when handling difficult team members is that of none or unclear expectations. This is always a window for the negative team members to get the attention that allows them to be toxic.

It must be very explicit from the onset what team members are expected to deliver on and this should not be in dispute but well understood on both sides. Further, the “reward” of non-delivery or poor performance must equally be known so there is no reason for uncertainty or bleak interpretation of things.

This actually is not just for difficult team members. It is important for every manager to be clear what they expect and share these with their team. In this way, there will be no opportunity to hide any retrogressive behavior or negative attitude usually associated with difficult team members.

6. Be consistent

When managers have set rules or standards, they must also be seen to respect these set of values. This is cardinal in order to build confidence and respect in the handling of their staff. This usually comes to the fore when dealing with disciplinary or reward issues.

Managers must never be seen to have favourites or compromise themselves in the way they discharge their function. There are cases where managers let relationships, fondness and emotions dictate how staff are handled. In some cases, even contrary opinion offered by staff can be taken as personal for those not in good standing with the manager.

Failure to handle this well gives a difficult team member impetus to hold onto their negativity believing they are justified. After-all the “boss” has his own preferred people and views. This lifeline is cut off when such staff realise the manager has offered the same platform to all and the consistency is evident.

7. Ignore them

Difficult team members thrive on attention. When they get it, they remain relevant and can easily woo the weaker members of the team if allowed to do so.

To curb this and mitigate the impact of this negativity, a manager must also determine not to give attention to these team members. This must however be handled with tact. Ignoring does not mean not paying attention to their influence or efforts that distract teamwork and collective progress.

A manager simply takes a position not to entertain the counter-progressive contribution of such team members. Once they realise they are not getting the attention they anticipated, it may just force them into introspection and perhaps even a sobering appreciation of their waning influence on other vulnerable team members.

8. Suffocate the support system

Related to the point above, this would then work effectively to cut off any support system that endorses their relevance. Once a difficult team member knows they do not exert as much influence as they did, they are forced to rethink their contribution and place in the overall scheme of things.

One of the other ways to make this possible is winning over their “supporters”. When the weaker team members appreciate their potential, the overall corporate pursuit and how negativity works against this, they are likely to turn around. This cuts off the life support that gives the difficult team member a constituency.

So instead of facing them head on, a manager must simply engage and win over the team members that form the support system which sustains the difficult team member’s agenda. In time, they become irrelevant and will note that it leaves them with only one of two options. To turn around and change or face extinction and exit.

9. Mutual respect

Without doubt, such team members are energy sapping and no team needs them. However, a manager must never be seen to take the extreme approach of chiding them or disrespecting them.

Instead, it is more effective to offer respect to these team members. That works like a heap of hot coal on their heads. A manager must strive to see beyond what is seen and said. That way, even strengths can be appreciated and tasks assigned on that basis in an attempt to bring out the best of such team members.

Eventually, they will be forced to rethink their behavior and attitude. This may prompt a much more positive approach or a less negatively influential effect on all since they will inevitably realise there is no justification to carry on when you are accorded respect. They may opt to carry on with the negativity but certainly not with or toward you. Eventually, they will appreciate the futility of being a pain. It will choke them because the manager will have opted for a positive approach, doing good even when “bad” is the easier choice.

10. Get rid of them

If all fails, there must be a way to manage such team members out. This route though is only possible if all is well documented to support a decision to get rid of such team members. Anything less will surely meet the resistance of policy and Human Resource guidelines.

However, this is one option most managers are reluctant to consider. Firstly, because even where they know the shortcomings of a team member, their assessment is misaligned to this fact and such team members’ performance ratings do not suggest any such negative elements. Secondly, most managers fall short of firm decision making and thus delay the inevitable which would be to their benefit.

Keeping such team members has the untold effect of demoralising the entire team that endures the escape of such difficult team members with no reprimand, action or firmness. Coupled with that, it surely also works against productivity as the manager will always spend time trying to manage negativity and its offshoots as opposed to more value adding areas of his or her managerial role.

Is it not time you looked at your difficult employees differently? How are you handling them if you have any?


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