How to deal with even the most challenging staff member, The Rules of Work

Guest post by Richard Templar author of the global best-selling “The Rules of… ” series. The Rules of Work and The Rules of Management are published by Pearson, priced at £12.99, and are available from all good book stores.

Let me guess. A few of your team are a delight to work with, plenty are fine most days and just need a little bit of careful handling, and then there’s the odd one or two who are just plain difficult. They’re bad-tempered or negative or narcissistic or martyred or over-competitive or erratic or manipulative. Or maybe they simply wind everyone else up through being thoughtless or rude or hopelessly unorganised. But it’s your job to manage them, at least enough to get the job done (without everyone else walking out).

How to deal with even the most challenging staff member, The Rules of Work

The first thing to acknowledge is that you’ll never turn this person into someone they’re not. They’ll always be prone to emotional blackmail, or insecurity, or shouting. Your job is not to transform them, but simply to get them to adjust their behaviour.

What’s in it for them?

So why would they do that? Well that’s what you need to find out. We’re all motivated by different things, and if you can establish what drives this person, you’re much better placed to persuade them to behave in a way that works for the whole team. You should have a sense of what makes everyone in your team tick, and you can also ask them (yep, not rocket science) as well as asking their colleagues, previous boss, or anyone else who knows them.

We’re all motivated by more than one thing, so you’re looking for the key drivers. Money is a common one, but actually most people really want something else as well, or even instead. Recognition is often important, as is status, appreciation, responsibility, challenge – you need to identify this person’s driver and use it to incentivise the behaviour you want.

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— ?Richard – knight Templar in mind & body? (@MchaleRichard) September 3, 2022

Put them in the right place

You may only have a finite number of roles, but you can move people around within certain constraints, or give them different working practices, or decide which projects to allocate them to. If your tricky team member works better alone, or is happier on short-term projects, or likes to get out of the office, or is great face-to-face with customers, accommodate this as much as you can. The happier they are, the easier – and more productive – they’ll be.

Look for the flipside

A lot of difficult traits have a positive flipside. For example, negative people can actually be very useful when it comes to identifying the flaws in a plan, rather than blindly enthusing about it with everyone else. Over-competitive people are a nightmare when they’re competing with their colleagues, but if you can point them at your competitors they’re just what you need. So try to find ways to exploit their difficult characteristics. They’ll feel more valued (which helps all round) and you’ll benefit too.

Thick-skinned people need firm handling

Obviously it’s likely you’ll need to talk to this person about their behaviour. Keep it civil and pleasant, of course – never lose your cool – and help them to understand why it is holding back the team. Focus on their behaviour and not their personality, and don’t let them drag you into tit-for-tat discussions about individual incidents. If you’re dealing with someone sensitive you’ll want to be sure you don’t simply demoralise them. However remember that people who are rude or bullying or insensitive tend to be very thick-skinned. That’s why they don’t realise they’re upsetting people, because it wouldn’t upset them. So you may need to speak quite firmly to them in order to get through.

Consider neurodiversity

Some people who are difficult to work with are simply neurodiverse and struggling to function in a world that doesn’t suit them. You’re not qualified to diagnose them, obviously, but do always consider whether this person is actually having difficulties themselves. If, for example, they find interpersonal relationships tricky, or they’re inconsistent, or their organisation skills make everyone’s life harder, perhaps they need support. If so, you’ll have a far more effective, productive and happy team member if you can give them the help and understanding they need. So talk to them. It’s not about labels and diagnoses, it’s about getting to the bottom of the problem and resolving it for everyone on the team, including this member of staff.

Richard Templar is the author of the global best-selling “The Rules of… ” series. The Rules of Work and The Rules of Management are published by Pearson, priced at £12.99, and are available from all good book stores. 

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