In time, virtually every leader will encounter an employee who is difficult. Employees may present a variety of challenges, from extraordinary negativity to downright laziness. Great leaders must know how to communicate their concerns with these employees effectively and inspire them to change their ways. Since part of broaching this subject involves understanding the employee and their motivations, here are a handful of general tips that can help avoid serious conflict.
Make the conversation about behavior.
When frustrated with someone else’s behavior, people tend to form negative opinions about the person, which can lead to making hurtful or unnecessarily aggressive comments. In the workplace, talking to an employee about undesirable behaviors should focus on concrete examples of those behaviors rather than personal attacks. Instead of using “you” statements, leaders should always stick with “I” statements. Instead of saying, “You were very negative in today’s meeting,” a leader could instead address the situation by pointing to the actual behavior: “I noticed that you were quickly shutting down everyone’s ideas in the meeting this morning.”
The second statement is less a judgment of the person and more a comment on a behavior that is unhelpful or inappropriate. The statement can be even more effective if the leader explores the consequences of the behaviors: “I worry that some people were afraid to offer an idea because they felt it would just get shut down.”
Keep the issue between the involved parties.
If leaders do not address problematic behavior quickly, they can begin to grow resentful of the employee. This resentment can sometimes lead to badmouthing. Even leaders who think they are being respectful may become more dismissive of the problematic employee or communicate their frustration nonverbally. Other people will pick up on these cues, which can lead to a hostile work environment. Leaders should quickly address the problematic behavior and involve only those people directly affected. This directness and professionalism sends the right message to other employees.
Provide concrete suggestions for improvement.
Pointing out a problematic behavior is not always enough to elicit change in an employee, because that person may not know how act differently. Often, problematic behaviors become habits when left unaddressed—and habits are very hard to break. Great leaders work with employees who are willing to suggest concrete behavior modifications.
For example, if an employee has a habit of treating colleagues disrespectfully, a leader could suggest that he or she pay team members a certain number of compliments each day. These compliments encourage new patterns of behavior while also forcing the employee to recognize their colleagues’ positive aspects. Once concrete behavior modifications are implemented, leaders should follow up to see how they are working out and praise any resulting progress.
Never make assumptions about the behavior.
Leaders may fall in the trap of losing empathy for employees they consider problematic. As a result, these leaders can start projecting their feelings onto the employee (growing suspicious of the employee’s “malicious” intent, for example). Often, employees are simply unaware of their behavior or they do not realize that their behavior is not acceptable. When no assumptions are made, leaders can point out the behavior in a respectful manner and learn more about what might be behind it. For instance, the employee could be experiencing health issues or difficulties at home. Sometimes, just recognizing these circumstances can help the situation. However, approaching an employee with hostility will only make matters worse.
Recognize the limitations of the situation.
While leaders typically want to restore peace in the workplace, this goal is not always possible. Limitations exist to what a leader can do for an employee, and therefore it can be helpful to bring in outside help, whether from human resources or a third-party professional. If negative behaviors stem from personal issues, leaders can encourage employees to seek help for those issues (but there is no guarantee that the employee will actually seek out such help). At a certain point, leaders may need to draw a line so that no further damage is done to morale and productivity at the company. Leaders who are hesitant to initiate termination procedures may end up doing unintended damage to the whole team.
Fully document the negative behaviors.
Whenever problematic employees behave in an unacceptable way, leaders should make a note of issue. While this log should never be used as leverage against the employee, it can help the leader point to specific instances of unreasonable behavior when discussing the issue. Also, this documentation can help leaders recognize problematic patterns more quickly and minimize their impact on productivity. If the employee refuses to change, then the documentation can also serve as proof of misconduct should the individual need to be let go. Documenting such behavior should not be seen as a negative action, but rather a prudent one.