Dealing with Difficult Employees?

Many leaders I talk with have shared their frustration over one of their employees not performing as well as they could. They often refer to this problem as the problem of a difficult employee — an employee who isn’t giving them the results they want. 

Often, they place the focus on the problematic employee. The employee isn’t motivated. They are not doing what they are supposed to do. Their work is inconsistent. You get the idea. 

A Different Perspective

What if the difficult employee is not the problem? What if the problem is the leader? 

What if the leader has failed to set clear expectations of what performing well looks like? What if the leader has not regularly communicated their expectations? What if the leader has had many conversations about the difficult employee but never discussed their concerns with the employee in question? 

Blaming others is a lot like indulging in too much sugar. It tastes good going down and even leads to a short-term high, but it inevitably upsets your stomach and leaves you feeling worse. 

To be a real leader, you must own the problems you’ve helped create. And here is the reality: If you have someone on your team that you classify as a problematic employee, you have contributed to it. I’ll allow that you possibly hired the wrong person to begin with, but that is also on you. Or, more likely, there is something about your leadership that is lacking, and you are dealing with the repercussions. 

Been There, Done That

How do I know this? Because I have been there and done that. 

The Hoffer Plastics salesperson who wasn’t performing up to par was never the main problem or root cause. 

I was. 

I sometimes still am. 

How’s that for reality? 

So, where do we go from here? 

We take our medicine by owning it and changing our behavior going forward. 

On the front end, we make sure that we spend a LOT (emphasis needed) of time with potential hires. At Hoffer Plastics, I want to know that these potential teammates (not employees) are humble, hungry, and smart. This means they are team players who think about others more than themselves. They are self-starters. They also have a high emotional quotient (EQ) and know how to interact with others well. This keeps our team moving in sync and avoids inadvertently adding “difficult” folks to our team. 

Occasionally, however, “difficult” still makes it through the interview process. And that is always on me, not the person who made it through. But all is not lost. 

Clear Communication and Expectations

I believe in the power of clear communication and expectations. Sometimes tricky situations occur because communication and expectations are lacking. A Key Results Area (KRA), for example, gives a team member the blueprint for what success in their job entails. It also aligns the leader and employee to what the expectations are.  

There is no perfect way to write a KRA, but it must describe what winning looks like. If that sounds cheesy or too simplistic, then we are on to something. You do not need a Harvard MBA to be a successful leader — you need to be able to communicate clearly enough that a fifth grader can understand what winning looks like. 

Here is an example for a salesperson:

Key Result Area #1: Land new customers in the medical market 

What winning looks like: 

Winning means that we have a new relationship in our fastest-growing market. It will energize our team and bring a level of personal satisfaction for the contribution I have made. It also recognizes that my contribution is just one of many. We are one team. This will take the team working together, so winning will happen with everyone at the finish line together. 

What it will take: 

  • Attendance at MD&M Medical Design & Manufacturing show
  • Handwritten thank you notes to people that stop at our booth 
  • One-on-one, in-person meetings with prospective customers 
  • Learning how to help the customer win and guiding them elsewhere if we can’t help 
  • Quick (within X hours/days) responses to questions and RFQs
  • Gaining commitment when all the above aligns.

The above example clarifies what success looks like and what it will take to be successful. 

The Choice is Yours

Difficulty only arises when the team member is not doing what it takes or is doing things in a way that contradicts the company’s values. When this happens, the leader should produce the KRA and/or company values and honestly discuss them with the employee. 

Coming full circle, the point of this post is to get you to consider what you can do in your leadership to address difficult employees. You have to choose whether you want to keep eating sugar — blaming the difficult employee for everything — and feeling bad in the long run? Or do you want to take your medicine — realizing your contribution to the mess you are observing — and work to fix the problem? 

The latter is a different approach and one that leads the organization back to health.