How To Better Manage Challenging Team Members
Running your own business means ensuring every project you contract to do is done expertly, on time and on budget. That is how you get paid and secure more work in the future.
As your business grows, you will need a great team to help you.
What happens when one of your team members threatens your whole process by being excessively difficult to deal with?
You know you can’t ignore that person. If you do, their negativity will spread and before long, you have more than one team challenge, you have a toxic working environment that will infect everyone.
By difficult, I mean someone who is a complainer or is unreliable or whose behaviour is disruptive or offensive to others.
Try to get to the “why” of their behaviour before you think solutions
When we observe a difficult team member in our workplace, our first instinct is to immediately focus on a possible solution.
Experience has taught me to hold off on that until I can figure out why the person is behaving as they are.
Perhaps they come from a culture where it was common to complain or where they felt put upon by their previous manager, so they are on the defensive from day one. Perhaps they are not getting enough sleep because there is a new baby at home or a loved one is ill; perhaps they are deeply troubled by some other issue at home.
They may even have an inflated view of their talent and expertise, or conversely feel inadequate so they mask it with a “don’t care” attitude.
In other cases, the person may simply be asked to do a job bigger or more complicated than they have the skills or talent to handle. Instead of asking for help, it is human nature for many people just to blame the project and the team leader, or even just stick their head in the sand hoping it will all go away.
Customize your solutions for each unique situation
Solving the difficult employee dilemma isn’t a recipe that always turns out the same.
At the same time, failure to take action when the difficulty has been noted will serve nobody well. If you are not the direct manager of the difficult worker, first involve their manager to discuss the situation and consider solutions.
If you are their direct manager, meet with them on neutral ground and have the conversation that makes the employee aware that their behaviour is upsetting for members of their team. Be tactful but specific.
For example, don’t say “your negative attitude is causing a lot of your team members to get upset with you.”
Instead, say: “Yesterday when I announced Project X and asked if the team could take this on and complete everything in two months, I noticed that your response was negative. I believe you said something like ‘that will happen when pigs fly.’ Well, for the growth of the company, I guess I need those pigs to fly now, and I need to find out why you said what you did. Help me to understand your response.”
In this way, you are focused on a specific action, not a personal attack on the person. It is a more neutral approach to getting into a serious conversation that may lead you to better understand how the employee thinks and why.
Stephen Covey may have put it best in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, when he said in Habit #5 – “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Keep focused on the solution
Remember that the goal of your interaction and investigation of the employee’s problem is to find a solution, not to rap their knuckles or re-enforce that you are the boss and they need to do what you say.
Solutions that are arrived at jointly by you and the difficult employee will be far more effective than one dictated only by you, or one that involves an aspect of punishment (as in demotion) for the offence.
If the employee in this instance finally acknowledges that they did respond negatively when they should have considered what was at stake (the growth of the company and their own solid future), steer the conversation to what they suggest in the future as a more appropriate response.
Don’t stop at acknowledgment of the problem
Once the employee acknowledges that they may have behaved inappropriately, don’t release them from the conversation too soon.
If both of you agree that a solution is for the person to be more open-minded and embrace new projects more positively in the future, steer the conversation into the way that this behaviour change can be measured.
If another employee was impacted by their behaviour, (as in they undermined their immediate manager, they said something inappropriate, or their negativity caused serious stress to another employee), some follow-up action is needed to ensure that the person impacted has redress. An apology may be appropriate, or a concrete action taken either privately or publicly with other team members.
Accountability is a critical aspect of effective behavior change.
Keep a written account of the conversation and proposed follow-up in your files
For small business owners who tend to be more focused on product or service and profit than personnel matters, there is a feeling of relief after such conversations and a genuine belief that things will change for the better.
But what if they don’t?
You have to be aware of that possibility after each such conversation with a difficult employee. That is why it is good practice to have a third person such as a manager or an associate sit in on the meeting.
Once the meeting is over, take the time to prepare a report of the time, date, conversation, who was present, and what was said and the action that was promised. Detail the circumstances that prompted the meeting as well and retain such files indefinitely.
Acknowledge if you could be part of the problem
While the employee may be causing the problem, it is also important under such circumstances to do a little soul-searching yourself.
Is the difficult employee imitating you? Do you sometimes tend to be negative and critical?
Are you sure that each employee is clear about your intent and what is expected of them? Confusion and frustration over conflicting directions can make employees very difficult and very frustrated.
Do you make everything sound like a priority? Or do you announce conflicting priorities? Both can frustrate employees and lead to negative behaviour.
Do you ensure that sufficient staff training is provided for each project? Do you invest in team-building exercises and events, no matter how busy you are?
Breaking up team is a last resort
If all of your strategies fail and the difficult team member continues to create havoc, you have to get them out. Ensure that you have the process of seeking a solution well documented. If you are not well versed on labor law or the process of terminating an employee, seek the help of a human resources professional or a lawyer who handles such matters.
Letting someone go is often the most difficult thing a business owner will do so make sure you have done everything you can to avoid that outcome. But, when it is obvious that is the only solution be firm – explain what you are doing and why you are doing it. Make it clear the decision has been made and this is not the time for a discussion.
A book I highly recommend for every entrepreneur and manager to help them better manage and lead a team is “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni. I found it to be very helpful in my own journey to be a better leader and manager.
Thank you for reading. Until next time. Take care.
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