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23 - 24 April 2025 | ExCeL London

17 - 18 April 2024 | ExCeL London

How to Manage Difficult Employees for a More Harmonious Workplace

Wednesday 24 April 2024

How to Manage Difficult Employees for a More Harmonious Workplace

Candace Stephens
How to Manage Difficult Employees for a More Harmonious Workplace

Managing employees is a real balancing act; you never stop juggling various personalities and workflows. And while most team members contribute positively to the organization, managers sometimes deal with employees with negative attitudes. If left unchecked, one person’s bad vibes can bring the whole team down. 

In this article, we'll explore the importance of addressing those difficult employee behaviors and fostering a culture of accountability and growth. We’ll also offer a few helpful strategies — like performance conversations, feedback, and employee engagement practices — that can mitigate any issues before they poison the well. 

 

First things first: what do we mean by ‘difficult’?

Difficult employees can exhibit a range of traits and behaviors that make them challenging to manage. This includes resistance to change, low motivation, lack of teamwork, constant negativity, and disruptive behavior. The sooner you identify these traits, the more effective your management will be.  

So, what’s making your employee difficult to deal with? 

To combat employee disengagement and difficulties in the workplace, you need to understand the root causes of a bad attitude. These underlying factors include: 

  • Lack of recognition and appreciation: Imagine working hard, day after day, without a single ‘thank you.’ A lack of authentic continuous recognition is a recipe for discontent. 
  • Poor communication from management: When higher-ups are too mysterious, employees can feel lost and disconnected. 
  • Insufficient training and development opportunities: Without prospects for growth, your people may become stagnant or uninterested in their roles. 
  • Workload and stress: Juggling too many responsibilities can lead to burnout, frustration, and — you guessed it — a negative attitude. 
  • A mismatch between job expectations and reality: If the job description doesn't match the daily grind, disappointment can brew fast. 
  • Manager incompetencies: That’s right: it’s not always about what the employee is doing wrong. New or inexperienced managers can also impact how the employee engages with work, especially if the manager hasn’t been equipped with leadership competencies.

 

How to identify difficult employees

Sometimes it can be like trying to spot a needle in a haystack, but there are a few telltale signs that a team member is disengaging from their work.  

  • They complain all the time. Ever met that colleague who seems to have a rain cloud following them around? They're the ones who grumble about everything, from the latest assignment to the office coffee. While it's totally okay to voice concerns, constant negativity can be a red flag.  
     
    Studies show that employees who constantly complain and exhibit negative behavior can have a significant impact on workplace morale and the global GDP; a survey by Gallup found that disengaged employees cost the world $8.8 trillion in lost productivity. Yikes. 
  • They’re resistant to change. Change is a constant in the workplace, but some employees can’t help but dig their heels in at every turn. They resist new processes, technologies, or even small adjustments to their daily routine. Spotting this hostility early is one way to ensure smoother transitions. 
  • They’re less productive. Productivity slumps can be a major sign that something's amiss. When an employee consistently fails to meet deadlines or deliver quality work, it's time to take notice! In fact, Forbes reports that disengaged employees are 60% more likely to make errors at work. The impact on productivity is real. 
  • They’re isolated from the team. Maybe your team is chatty and collaborative, but there's that one person who's always MIA. They avoid team meetings, skip lunch gatherings, and generally steer clear of social interactions. Loneliness at work is a significant problem around the world and can lead to disengagement and general gloominess.  

It may involve playing detective but remember that identifying difficult employees is the first step toward creating a happier, more harmonious workplace for everyone.

 

What are some strategies for managing difficult employees?

Open and honest communication is the best way to turn attitudes into assets. Once you've laid the groundwork, you can step up your game with performance feedback and coaching techniques that inspire a positive change in their behavior.  

When tackling a performance conversation with a difficult employee, keep the following must-haves in mind: 

1. Clear expectations and examples 

Set the stage by communicating your expectations clearly. Let your employees know what behavior you consider acceptable and what’s not going to fly — this can cut down on any confusion in the future. Offer specific examples of the employee’s problematic behavior, rather than vague observations about their personality (which can come off as an attack).  

2. Active listening 

Employee visibility is critical to engagement, so be the ear they need. Give them a chance to express themselves and really listen. They could be struggling with work-life balance or dealing with issues in another department. Be patient and have empathy for their situation. Sometimes, all your people need is to feel heard and understood.  

3. Constructive feedback 

Offer feedback that's immediately actionable and focused on improvement. Avoid the blame game and stick to solutions — what will they try to do differently? What will you try to do differently? You should work together to come up with the best way to move forward.  

4. Regular follow-ups 

Don’t forget to follow up with your difficult employee as their behavior (hopefully) improves. Schedule regular performance reviews to discuss their progress, goals, and areas for continued improvement. The more involved you are in their development, the more seriously they’ll take the process. 

5. Goal setting 

Set clear, achievable goals that align with both individual and team objectives. When establishing these objectives and key results (OKRs), make sure employees understand their role in the bigger picture and how important they are to the organization as a whole. 

Whether we like it or not, wrangling with difficult employees is simply par for the course for managers and HR professionals. But here's the scoop: taking negative attitudes and disengagement by the horns can transform your workplace into a thriving hub of positivity and peak performance. 

Don’t just ‘deal with’ difficult employees; instead, guide them to greatness.

 

 

Candace Stephens Candace Stephens

Director of Content and Creatives at LMS365

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