Managing Difficult Employees

Poster seen at Netflix: “No room for brilliant jerks.”

 We can all be a pain in the neck to others at times. As the old ditty says;

Everyone is strange

Save me and you.

And sometimes I think

You strange too

However, if you are managing certain individuals that regularly demonstrate behaviors that are hostile, negative, passive aggressive, or overly agreeable but don’t deliver and these behaviors

o    Rub everyone the wrong way

o    Sabotage effective collaboration

o    Derail projects

Then the tough part of leadership requires that you take charge of the situation by finding out what is going on and intervene so that the disruptive behaviors stop.

 Leaders – Facilitators of Change

As a leader your job is to deliver results. So when people are behaving badly you don’t have to become a psychoanalyst and dig into their emotional lives. Your role is to point them to resources that will help change their behavior. However, first you have to get a read on whether this is a chronic or acute behavior that requires change.

Acute, sudden, and temporary changes

A person may be going through a difficult family situation, feeling demoralized after a recent reduction in the workforce, or angry about not being promoted. As a result their behavior may have become difficult and disruptive to their performance.


1.   Listen empathically to a person’s situation without intrusive probing. This goes a long way towards them trusting you with what going on in their lives. Stop at that point – don’t try to fix their personal situation. That is NOT your role.

2.   Talk about the change in their performance by referring to specific behaviors that have been observed repeatedly (e.g. “You have been snapping a fellow team members of late, what’s going on?”).

3.   Discuss resources they may need like the employee assistance program for counseling, personal time off to take careof a family crisis, or having a colleague help them with the workload.

4.   Reaffirm that you are supporting them through this and that you commitment to their personal and career goals have not changed.

5.   Together, define what the most productive behavior looks like.

That was the EASY SITUATION. Now the tough nuts (no pun intended) you may have to crack.

Chronic, persistent, and personality based behaviors.

The person who is persistently difficult has been that way for a long time. Their disruptive behaviors are part of the fabric of their personality. You may have tolerated their behavior up to now because they are star contributors. However, as a result of their behavior, their team’s productivity has taken a dive. What do you do?

1.   Start with their most cherished goals. If the leader with difficult behavior wants to be promoted to a more senior executive position that requires excellent team and collaborative skills, leverage that fact by

2.   Doing a reality test on the negative consequences of their behavior. For instance, the leader may be very critical and dismissive with his reports. This factor may have come up in previous performance evaluations. Give them specific feedback on their behavior.

3.   Raise the stakes on them. In the case of the executive it would be “Change you attitude/behavior or you will not get the promotion”.

4.   Offer them resources to help them change. It is at this point in the interview when many managers offer a person executive coaching. However, it must not be billed as a punishment for their behavior but as a resource to help them achieve their most cherished goals.

5.   Indicate ways you will measure success and a timeline for review. Holding a person accountable for specific changes is one of the most powerful tools in seeking behavior change. Schedule follow-up meetings to review their progress.

That gets back to the old joke

“How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?”

Answer. “One. But the light bulb must want to change”.

People can make dramatic changes when they are deeply motivated, have the right managerial intervention, and are provided with the most appropriate resources.


As a leader, what are some of the most difficult behavioral changes have you required of others and what did you do to ensure success?


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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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