Effectively Managing Challenging Employees

By Julie Ruben Rodney, Founder and CEO of MaxPeople

People management is one of the toughest aspects of a manager’s job. It is particularly difficult for managers to deal with challenging employees who can potentially cause grave consequences for your organization.

It is essential in today’s workplace to know how to deal with challenging employee situations directly and not allow them to fester in the workplace. Education is necessary to provide managers with the right skills to deal with these employees.

Before one can learn how to manage issues with challenging employees, it is important to first understand why they are being “challenging.” Understanding the root causes for the behavior of challenging employees will help managers understand how to improve employee performance and increase employee engagement. For example, an employee assigned with an overabundance of tasks may burn out and consequently, become a challenge for their managers.

The following is a non-exhaustive list of issues that may be underlying a challenging employee:

  • Capacity Issue – Too many tasks or projects assigned to the individual at one time.
  • Capability Issue – Do not have the knowledge and/or skills needed for the job.
  • Attitude Issue – The employees’ mind-set to the job or colleagues are inhibiting their ability to perform.
  • Resources Issue – Do not have the necessary time, money, people or equipment to perform the job.

Miscommunication Issue – A misunderstanding on the job priorities or how it should be performed.

Upon noticing an employee exhibiting problematic behaviour, it is pertinent for a manager to pose the question of why this behaviour is occurring prior to making an attempt to resolve the situation. It is absolutely essential for managers to focus on preserving their relationships with employees and dealing with core issues to ensure all employees feel valued.

The key to effectively managing employees, is to use tailored approaches for different individuals. This will aid managers in altering their management styles to best meet the needs of a challenging employee.

Since every performance situation is unique, the manager should focus on performance, not the employee. The employee should be asked how they would approach the situation in order to collaboratively reach a solution. This approach is likely to contribute to the success of resolving the problematic behaviours. Developing action plans with the employee, as well as agreeing on follow up dates for check-ins on progress are all steps employers should be taking when dealing with challenging behaviours.

There are seven general types of challenging people as identified by Robert M. Bramson in Coping with Difficult People including: the “Sherman Tank,” the “Exploder,” the “Staller,” the “Complainer,” the “Wet Blanket,” the “Know-it-all,” and the “Clam” (1988). Each type has their own set of methodologies that work best for them when it comes to being managed, the same way all people have their own unique preferences of management styles.

For example, the “Clam” will avoid conversation or responding. The “Clam” will use short grunts or answer questions with a “yes” or a “no.” To effectively deal with the “Clam,” a manager will need to engage the person with open ended questions and collaborative action planning. The goal is to get the “Clam” to participate and speak up. This approach will yield the best results.

Challenging employees can be disengaged, something that all managers play a role in. Yet, what exactly is employee engagement and why is it so important? Employee engagement, as defined by The Conference Board is, “A heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his or her organization, that influences him or her to exert greater discretionary effort to his or her work” (2006).

In other words, employee engagement refers to the level of commitment employees feel towards the organization they work for and their willingness to go beyond the minimum standard in contributing to the company’s success. Consequently, the more employees are engaged, the less challenging they are.

Studies have shown that increasing employee engagement level can improve performance by 20% or more, reduce turnover by 87%, and help grow profits three times faster than organizational competitors (Harvard Business Review, 2012). Therefore, happier, more productive employees enable organizations to be more profitable by reducing additional costs related to turnover and employee issues.

Great managers understand the different needs of their employees, know how to motivate them, and recognize their different learning styles. If the employee’s needs are not clear, managers must take the initiative to understand what is necessary in order to set the employee up for success. Through active listening, managers can get to know their employees and ensure that they can effectively apply suitable management strategies. The manager can use techniques such as: asking questions, looking at body language, checking their own understanding, summarizing and showing genuine concern to better understand an employee’s needs.

The more connected managers are to their employees, the better they will understand individual preferences and be able to cater to them. According to the research-based organization Gallup, the strength of manager-employee relationships is a major indicator of how long employees will stay with a company as well as how productive they are at work. For instance, Gallup has shown that 71% of people who left their company said it was because of their manager – not the company. In other words, employees quit their managers, not their jobs. For this reason, managers play a crucial role in engaging their employees.

Managers need to be able to create a work environment which encourages open communication. This allows for employees and managers to set expectations and develop action plans. At times, employees will challenge managers. The ability of a manager to communicate and ensure that such situations are handled fairly and effectively will lead to successful performance management.

Engaged employees will exhibit certain characteristics including: commitment, fascination, and a desire to do their work as well as be inspired by their work. As previously discussed, with more focused and productive employees, organizations will be able to see a larger profit. What’s more is that with happier employees companies will further be able to enjoy a more cohesive working environment.

In order to keep employee engagement levels high and maintain healthy relationships with employees, managers need to ensure they are properly managing their challenging employees and their impact on engagement.

MaxPeople is a professional Human Resources consulting firm that offers premium HR services and Employment Law support for organizations in need of an effective people strategy to grow their business.
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