When thinking about how to manage difficult employees, first consider what you mean by “difficult”. People might describe “difficult” as those who:

  • Struggle to get along with others
  • Are confrontational or overly aggressive
  • Lose control of their emotions easily, leading to emotional outbursts
  • Don’t comply with the rules, norms, or generally accepted ways of doing things

If you want to know how to manage difficult employees, follow these golden rules.


Stand in their shoes

Why might difficult employees be acting up or being difficult? Before you make any judgments, look around. What’s going on for them? Are they at risk of redundancy? Is the department being restructured? Has something changed recently in the work environment that might be making them tenser?

When people are concerned or worried, this can manifest in friction and uncomfortable confrontations. Stand in their shoes for a moment and see the world through their eyes. Issues may not always be obvious, so get prepared to ask searching questions.


Ask questions and listen

It’s important to have ‘adult to adult’ conversations with anyone who you might deem to be being difficult. De-emotionalise the situation and talk factually. Rather than rising to what you might perceive as criticism, listen patiently without interrupting.

employees listening to each other

This strategy of letting other people speak is a great way to diffuse situations of conflict. When everyone has had their say, they’ll probably be dying to know what you think. Stick to the facts. Speak for yourself, not others. If you must tow the company line, then be honest – tell them that this is what you can tell them. When there’s more, you’ll share it.


Be prepared to concede first

If others around you are being difficult, why not concede something first? Conceding a point or offering an apology isn’t a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it shows humility and emotional intelligence. You don’t have to cave in on your morals or values, but you can concede that others are entitled to their view.


Don’t join in the toxicity

Let’s say a colleague is bad-mouthing your mutual manager. What do you do? You can choose to get sucked into the same narrative and agree with the remarks made. Or you can find out what might really be going on.

concept image for a toxic environment

Join in with the criticism and you become another person sowing the seeds of a toxic culture. Do you want to work in a place like that? Instead, try asking questions to get the other person to be more open. Why are you feeling so frustrated? Is anything else going on for you? What could you do to improve things? How can I help?


Explain what’s expected

People difficult employees act up when they don’t know or are unclear about what they should be doing. Don’t risk people falling into bad habits, instead ensure that expectations are clearly set from the get-go. When you set expectations, check back that they have been understood – never assume the message sent was the message received!

If someone starts to behave poorly or is creating problems in a team, don’t wait to have an honest conversation with them. Explain what you think you are seeing and nip things in the bud. If this strategy doesn’t work you may have to consider a more formal performance management route, but ahead of this make sure goals are clear, reasonable, and achievable.


Avoid weaponization of formal processes

Why do we have grievance, complaints and speak-up processes? To ensure people have a formal route in which to raise valid concerns, particularly after less formal avenues have been explored. It’s to allow people to speak out when they don’t want to be identified. It’s to support people who feel vulnerable or threatened. Bullying and harassment at work are not to be tolerated. It is an ugly situation that needs dealing with. However, not all conflict is bullying and harassment and it’s important that people understand the difference.

employee weighed down by issues at work

Managers today fear the weaponization of grievance processes. What we mean by this is that when someone hears something they don’t like (for example, your performance is not to an acceptable standard) the person raises a grievance against the person who has raised the issue – often citing that they feel bullied, stressed or unfairly picked-on. While the feelings may be real, it’s important to recognise that this might not constitute bullying and harassment.

It’s important to set out guidance and ground rules about how these long-established HR practices should be used:

  • Explain what constitutes bullying and harassment. There are clear government guidelines in place. You can find out more using our fact sheet here. Make sure you equally explain the need to give constructive, sometimes critical feedback.
  • Make sure people have clear job descriptions and know what is expected of them – not just work deliverables, but things like standards of behaviour and values.
  • Ensure people understand important HR processes like the grievance procedure. A culture of freedom to speak out should be encouraged.
  • As a manager, work hard to resolve issues quickly and informally. Broker discussions, find a neutral third party to mediate, or seek HR support if you have that option.
  • In the cases that a formal complaint is received, ensure everyone knows and follows the process to the letter.
  • If the case is serious, consider using a third party to hear the complaint.
  • If you are the receiver of a complaint against you, manage it with humility and dignity. State your case, present the facts as you see them and let others run the process.

Help people develop

People may act differently when they feel out of their depth or exposed in some way. Perhaps they’ve been thrown in the deep end of a project and don’t know where to start? Rather than criticizing or triggering a defensive response, talk to people about what learning, support, or development might boost their confidence. Supporting people’s professional development is a great way to engage and motivate, helping them see a better future.

And most of all, be kind. Some days, people may be difficult because they are simply exhausted or feeling at odds with the world. Perhaps they had a row at home before leaving for work? Maybe they bumped their car on the way into the office?

For whatever reason, sometimes you can’t reason with someone when they are just having a bad day. If it’s a recurring problem, then act as suggested above. When it’s the occasional one-off, take a deep breath and be kind. After all, one day it might be you feeling the same way!


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