Parents often teach children to cope with difficult personalities by ignoring the grumpy or rude individual and going on with their business. But when you own a business, and the negative personality is your employee, simply ignoring the situation isn’t an option. Ex-Navy SEAL, podcaster, and author Jocko Willink reminds readers in his book "Extreme Ownership" that leaders must be 100% responsible for everything in their world. “When setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable—if there are no consequences—that poor performance becomes the new standard. Therefore, leaders must enforce standards.” Willink wrote.1 Standards for interpersonal communication, accountability, and honesty are especially some you don’t want to see slip because one person sets a bad example.
Even if other employees don’t change their own behavior, the issue can also drive them away from your team. One study by organizational and personal development experts CPP found that avoiding conflict led to 25% of employees being sick or absent from the workplace, and 10% reported a project had failed due to unresolved interpersonal tensions.2 One talk with a problem employee about their behavior can start to change this trajectory for everyone, but sometimes, leaders need a structured approach to right the course. If an employee’s negativity toward others, constant excuses, or rude comments have become the elephant no one wants in the room anymore, here are some concrete steps you can take to intentionally address the situation for everyone’s benefit.
Pinpoint the Problematic Behavior
A survey conducted by the University of Louisville polled workers about what personality characteristics they found most “difficult” to work with. Participants were asked to choose three traits that best described why the coworker they had in mind was a challenge to support. Arrogance and haughtiness was the most common selection (42%), followed closely by taking credit for others’ work (40%) and emotional instability mixed with extreme reactions (38%). Issues like preoccupation with details (28%) and constant irresponsibility (24%) also commonly generate negativity around the office.3
It’s the role of a leader to not only notice when these behaviors are occurring, but to judge when intervention is needed. Workplace civility researcher Christine Porath points out that when an employee has a “pattern of de-energizing, frustrating, or putting down teammates,” leaders absolutely need to step in, clear the bad energy, and take control.4
Business leaders must remember not to vent about the problem employee to their other employees, but let them come to you for advice.
One study found that toxic employees can be more difficult to identify at first because they typically complete their work faster than peers. However, over time their work doesn’t lead to the same quality outcomes as a top performer.5 Worse, they can drive top performers away. For every toxic employee on staff, businesses spend an average $8,800 due to increased voluntary turnover. The same study found that “good” employees were 54% more likely to leave the team if a toxic coworker was present.6
When red flags like missed deadlines or disturbed clients start to pop up, turn to the team at large, listen to the general opinion, and start investigating. Surveys and 360 reviews are another good opportunity to get this information on an ongoing basis.
Take a Proactive Leadership Approach
Leaders must give every employee the same fair, but clear, chance to improve when a pattern of problematic behavior does emerge. It’s important that leaders have a standardized response plan to help them address and resolve tensions around a difficult employee. Your specific plan may vary, but start with this basic approach:
1. Start with a Conversation
In her research on workplace civility and relationships, Porath finds a good first step in addressing these difficulties is a one-on-one meeting with the employee in question. “Most of the time people don’t realize that they’re as destructive as they are,” Porath told the Harvard Business Review.7 The Association for Corporate Counsel points out this is one reason to stay focused on effects and results during conversations about the behavior. If you get too bogged down in the past and reasons for what has already happened, you’ll lose focus on the next steps.8
2. Establish Expectations
Staying focused on effects and results during your conversation with a difficult employee will be easier if you enter the conversation with a clear sense of expectations for their behavior after the interaction. If these expectations are already codified in some kind of written handbook, being able to refer to that will save time and energy. However, executive coach Paul Baren reminds his clients that often, the best goals for personal development are co-created between the business leader and the employee. "We have to communicate not in our own style but in the style of the people we're speaking to," Baren told Inc.com. "It's almost like mirroring . . . Expectations cannot be mandates. There has to be some co-creative juice along the way."9 When engaging the employee in a discussion about their behavior and how it’s impacting others, give them room to help negotiate what needs to change and when. This way, you give them more power in a situation that might otherwise leave them feeling defensive and disengaged.
3. Investigate and Document
Once you and the employee have agreed on reasonable expectations for growth and change have been set, it’s time to trust them to improve and stay watchful of their progress. It’s often obvious when issues like offloading work on others or chronic absence from work aren’t improving, but still, document each occurrence by date and time. Subversive behaviors like manipulation may be less evident on a daily basis, and can be more difficult to address because the employee themselves may not know (or agree) they are behaving this way.10 Especially in those cases of conflict, it’s important to document the details of the conversation.
The Society for Human Resource Management advises creating a disciplinary action form to ensure consistent documentation.11 Make sure the form includes:
- A summary of your standing expectations
- The circumstances in which the employee failed to meet those expectations
- A record of prior discipline in this area
- The new expectation
- Consequences for not meeting the new expectation
If you get bogged down analyzing reasons for what has already happened, you’ll lose focus on the next steps.
When filling out this form, it’s important to focus on effects and results, not what you or they think the intent or the cause of the problem was. Instead, document the issues at hand and their impact. Instead of “employee didn’t apply themselves,” aim for something more like “employee fell short of project deadlines,” or “employee deferred personal accountability to others.” These statements give specifics about the situation, and don’t pass judgment. When it comes to the expectations moving forward, the same care should be applied. Don’t just say you’re looking for “more accountability” or “a better attitude,” state what actions you expect the individual to take on a regular basis to prove their growth. This will ensure clarity between all stakeholders and give the employees tangible strategies to improve their behavior. Also, if the day ever comes that this documentation is called on to prove you did due diligence before firing an employee, clear and unbiased summaries will be essential.12
4. Keep Communication Open
Lastly, make sure you keep the lines of communication about the employee’s improvement open. This might mean conducting more frequent performance reviews, or simply checking in with them casually about the metrics and goals you mutually established. Depending on the size and structure of your team, you should certainly make sure any direct managers are engaged in the discussions, and may also consider it appropriate to include others too. This could be a means of allowing past frustrations to be aired and new relationships to begin growing, or of holding the difficult employee more accountable to their goals.
When All Else Fails
If you’ve tried these strategies and others with no effect, you’ll probably find yourself in one of two scenarios: Either the employee in question is a key talent you can’t succeed without, and so you must cope with their difficult nature, or you begin building a case for making a tough call and asking them to move on. In either scenario, Porath recommends immediately isolating the rest of your team from the difficult employee’s influence as much as you deem necessary, whether that means moving the desks, having fewer in-person meetings, or restructuring project teams.
Though taking these steps will hopefully have a clear effect on the well-being of your other employees, it’s important to do so with discretion. Business leaders must remember not to vent about the problem employee to their other employees, especially if the problem employee will be asked to leave the company in the near future, because that could open you up to legal liability. Instead, Porath and other experts advise waiting for other employees to bring it up to you, listening carefully, and making suggestions for positive next steps.13
Though conversations and planning are useful, and genuine personal change takes time, business owners must have the ability to make a tough call when needed, and the recruitment strategy tailored to find the ideal personality fit the next time. Remember, before you decide to send a difficult staff member out the door, make sure you’ve documented the reasons why as much as possible, even if a one-time incident was serious enough to warrant termination.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The leader leads, and the boss drives.”14 When dealing with a difficult employee, many business owners or managers might prefer to simply take the driver’s seat and decide the road ahead for everyone involved. However, a leadership approach rooted in listening, creative problem-solving, and consistently applied expectations will lead to a greater likelihood of employees staying along for the ride, even if they don’t always find it easy sharing the seat.