Management skills #101 – 5 ways to deal with challenging employees

Almost every Company I’ve ever worked with has at some point, had a challenging employee, that has tested their patience and management skills to the limit.  That’s not to say that they couldn’t evolve into good employees, it’s just that they need more encouragement and direction in order to get the best performance from them, whether that’s because they’re not meeting expectations, not getting on with the team, or are just difficult to be around.

It’s not a battle, (although it might feel like one!)  it’s simply a matter of your brain as an employer / leader vs their brain as an employee, it’s about using your leadership skills to help develop them into a more productive and constructive member of the team and in turn, an asset to the business.  Here are some important management skills that will help get you started:

Take the time to listen

When a challenging employee is becoming increasingly difficult it’s easy to stop listening, try and avoid the situation, and hope that they manage to pull things together themselves.  Experience proves that this approach will only end in tears – hopefully not literally but not a pleasant resolution all the same. Not doing something could mean that everything could come to a head at the worst possible time.  Projects might fail.  The employee might end up with complete burnout and decide to leave but in a blaze of glory.

Find a quiet time, sit down and listen to how they’re feeling about their work or the workplace.  It could be that there’s an underlying issue that could be resolved, whether that’s working a bit more flexibly around a homelife issue, providing them with new tools or support that they’re currently without, looking at how work is distributed, or dealing with what turns out to be a legitimate grievance.

Listening to your employee also gives you the opportunity to see what kind of person they really are, or maybe even find out something that you have in common with them that makes it easier to want to work with them as opposed to against them.  Here’s the thing, no one ever hires a poor performing employee, if they have become a “bad” employee, it’s because of the situation they are in, take the time to find out more about what’s going on and see where that takes you… whilst they might be awkward at present, maybe you’ll see where they might shine.

Communicate clearly and openly

Most people dislike and would avoid any kind of confrontation if they can.  We’ve all been guilty of ‘sucking it up’ during the day, then unloading on sympathetic family and friends when you get home about this bane of your life, and what they’ve done today.

One of the hardest management skills is learning how to confront issues and have the tough talks, without it turning into an argument.  Giving clear behavioral feedback is a good place to start without making it feel like they’re being told off by a teacher or parent, then invite them to contribute with open questions.  This gives you a chance to practice the previous skill – listening.  Softer ways to start might include:

  • I’ve noticed projects A and B are running behind consistently which is causing issues with the client.  Can you tell me where we’re struggling and what we can do to stop this from continuing?
  • I feel like there’s a bit of a negative environment in the office at the moment and I’m looking to do some troubleshooting.  What are your thoughts?
  • I’m worried you don’t seem happy in your work at the moment, and this is starting to show in the outcomes.  Can you tell me what’s going on?

Make a plan

Talk is cheap – if you’ve identified issues, areas of concern, sticking points, or ways in which the workplace can be improved, then a clear, shared plan should be put in place to get things back on track.

This plan should have a timescale to avoid things drifting, and have clear Key Performance Indicators, ideally ones that are measurable such as deadlines or output.

Layout the potential consequences of ongoing situations

Conversations shouldn’t end with a perky ‘alrighty then!’  It should be perfectly clear to your employee what changes you expect to see from them and what the outcome will be if the situation doesn’t improve.  That could mean a project being reassigned.  It could mean they’re unable to progress in the workplace.  If the situation is serious enough it could even mean disciplinary action.

Whatever the outcome might be, your employee should be in no doubt on where they might stand if they don’t improve.

The paperwork !

There’s no guarantee this will work out.  It could be that you try every technique, offer every kind of assistance, and push your management skills to the limit, but that the situation just can’t be resolved and comes to a head in some way, shape, or form.

If this is the case, it’s important to have your paperwork in order.  You need to be able to show that you gave them opportunities to work things out before it came to disciplinary action.  If the absolute worst-case scenario is dismissal the right paperwork demonstrating your management skills in communication, support and planning will literally save you time in the long run.

Would you like to further build on your management skills?

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  • With over 20 years' experience in structuring and growing businesses and teams from inception, through periods of growth and change and finally structuring them ready for sale, Karen and her team have helped dozens of business owners and leaders manage growth and change within their business by concentrating on the human side of running and managing a business. An experienced Organisational Coach and HR Consultant, Karen has extensive experience in working with growth SMEs and a proven background in delivery and development of employees against business goals, her specialism is in working with small and medium size companies, delivering operational, people-based solutions that are commercially focused and enable growth of the business. Karen also works as a Non-Executive Director and Trustee and is a trained Predictive Index (PI) Analyst.

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