How to Deal with a Difficult Employee

Before you point your finger, you should take a look at yourself

Photo SIphotography on depositphotos

First, Determine If You’re a Difficult Person

Do you find that you’re the only one who has problems with a particular person — someone who everyone else seems to get along with? Or have you noticed that you have very few, if any, friends at work? Has anyone at work told you you’re annoying? Are you reading this job aid because your boss told you to?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you’ll have to consider that maybe you are the difficult person. It’s easy to blame conflicts on the other guy, but saying it’s the other person’s fault doesn’t necessarily make it so. Before you point your finger, you should take a look at yourself. Use the following strategies to determine if you’re the difficult person.

Self-examination is always difficult, but it can be extremely worthwhile. Here are some of the areas in which you should evaluate yourself, and some points to keep in mind:

Ask yourself if you’re judgmental. Judging others is an easy way for you to feel superior. It also allows you to avoid examining yourself.

Has anyone ever told you that you never listen? When someone is speaking, do you interrupt, or do you change the subject and head off in another direction? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, quit talking and start listening.

How tolerant are you? If your viewpoint must be the only right one, you’re far too intolerant. People who are open to new ideas and different ways of doing things are generally happier and better liked than their counterparts.

A mature person thinks before he acts. Keep that e-mail one day before sending it, think about what you’re about to say before speaking in an angry tone, take deep breaths, count to 10, and consider your next move. You’ll reduce your stress level and the number of regrets you’ll have later. These aren’t the only areas in which you should evaluate yourself. However, they can provide a good starting point. Depending on your responses, you’ll find yourself asking additional questions that will help you clarify areas in which you’re difficult.

The next thing you can do is talk to a close friend and ask for an honest assessment of your character and behavior. Assure your friend that you won’t get angry with him or her, and be sure that you don’t. The questions listed above are appropriate ones to ask your friend to respond to. And like before, you’ll find yourself asking more in-depth questions as your friend offers you feedback. The information you glean can be extremely valuable. View it as such, and learn from it.

Another thing you can do is to see yourself from someone else’s point of view to try to determine the other person’s perspective of you. As you assess yourself through someone else’s point of view, write down the mannerisms you have that might annoy that person. When you imagine yourself in someone else’s place, the information you learn from the experience won’t necessarily be accurate, but it will give you some perspective. And at this point, that may be all you need to confirm that you are a difficult person.

If you seriously spend some time in self-evaluation, get some input from a friend, and take the time to see yourself from someone else’s point of view, you create the possibility for change. If you’ve been tough to work with in the past, you’ve now got a chance to make a change. One thing is certain: Everyone will appreciate your efforts.

Next, Learn How to Deal with a Difficult Employee

If you’re a boss, chances are that you have, or have had, at least one difficult employee. What have you done to deal with that person? Did your actions help you deal productively with the individual? Or did your actions have the reverse effect and the person was even more committed to their difficult behavior?

There are both productive ways and destructive ways to supervise troublesome employees. Here are four strategies you can use to deal productively with a difficult employee.

The reasons for the first strategy — never criticize an employee in public — are many, but the best reason for omitting this practice is that it isn’t effective. In fact, it usually backfires and produces the opposite effect. Public criticism shames and humiliates people. Even if the criticism is warranted, you may never again gain the trust and confidence of the injured party. Never assume that such criticism is harmless.

Raising a person’s esteem in the presence of co-workers can benefit even mediocre employees, and motivate that person to keep up the good work. Public recognition also creates an upbeat spirit that energizes everyone present, not just the employee who’s receiving the praise.

Lashing out in anger at errant or frustrating employees doesn’t work. Difficult employees often tune out the criticism and focus on the emotion. When the angry outburst is over, they’ll likely decide to cause you even more misery. Instead of striking out verbally, you should practice personal coping techniques such as deep breathing or slowly counting to 10 before responding. Tactics such as these can help you remain calm during critical moments.

The final strategy for dealing productively with a difficult employee is to attribute positive characteristics to the employee. When you do so, you’re actually giving the person advance credit for skills that you would like to see him or her develop. People build on their perceived strengths, and it doesn’t matter if those strengths are real or imagined. Offer your difficult employee a strength he or she can build on.

To deal effectively with difficult employees, there are a few points to remember. Praise, both public and private, always gets a better response than criticism. When you must give criticism, do it in private and offer constructive feedback, not personal attacks. Always respond to difficult employees calmly and rationally. Finally, remember that when you attribute a positive trait to an employee, that person is probably going to start acting that way regularly.

A consultant, trainer and author specialized in management, corrections and industrial relations

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