Work can include a range of difficult people. Procrastinators or poor team players can quickly interrupt the flow of productivity in the modern collaborative office, while a negative employee can bring down the mood of the whole group. In financial terms, 27% of surveyed employers said a single bad hire cost them more than $50,000.
It’s critical to deal with these people well so they don’t hold your business back. So, what do you do if someone is causing issues?
1. DETERMINE THE CAUSE
What defines most people as difficult is typically the larger culture they’re in. Someone who comes across as harsh or too forward in one business might be considered direct and assured in another. If someone comes from a business where leaders reward workers who sacrifice work-life balance to boost the bottom line, they might struggle in a business where the priority is balancing both.
On an established team, everybody is going to have their own connections and roles, and they might give a new employee pushback just because they feel like that person is threatening those familiar dynamics and processes. It’s also not uncommon for a team to feel offended when a creative new person points out flaws or ways to improve. The new hire might only want to share their ideas and contribute, but the team interprets it as being critical or egotistical.
Personality and work styles matter, too. Someone more introverted might wait until after a meeting to tell you that your idea needs improvement. You might see them as passive-aggressive for not being direct when everybody was in the same room. But, they might have just needed time to think, or believed they were being more kind by not faulting your concept in front of the entire team.
It might be that they don’t know what others expect or haven’t developed certain skills they need to better connect to the organization. Maybe they’ve experienced things that give them a different perspective and they genuinely don’t understand you and the company yet. It’s your job as a leader to objectively analyze the real root cause of the problem and help them adjust.
2. TURN DIFFERENCES INTO A POSITIVE THING
To start helping a difficult person, try to shine some of their differences in a positive light.
At a meeting, instead of immediately vetoing their ideas and creating tension, you can proactively point out why that person might have a different way of seeing things and how that could be beneficial to the team. Then you can ask them directly what they think or would do about the situation being discussed. If they respond enthusiastically with new concepts or legitimate criticisms, that’s a sign they do want to contribute. It also tells you that you can get insights about what’s challenging them the most about your company so you can help them overcome those challenges and better connect to the team.
I learned the value of doing this early in my career. One of my first managers and mentors had a large number of direct reports who argued every time I presented to them. He told me they actually got along really well and he’d brought them together specifically because they brought different perspectives to the table. The idea that you can come up with better solutions if you have a variety of people has stuck with me so deeply that now I make it a point to bring a variety of people on board, even if they might seem difficult on the surface.
3. EVALUATE THE ABILITY TO COMMIT
A person can usually perform work at a higher level, advance in their career, and connect more deeply with others if they are ready, able, and willing to change. I’ve had employees who were able in terms of skills and intelligence do the tasks their position called for, but they also thought they were the greatest thing since sliced bread. Their egos made them unwilling to take advice or consider that they could be wrong, so they stayed stuck in their ways of doing things and created conflict by refusing to cooperate.
Sometimes you get somebody who just needs help getting ready. I once had an employee who wasn’t doing so great. He had worked for only one other company for 30 years, so his level of mental fixedness was incredibly high. But this person recognized and challenged that fixedness and came to my office every day with a notepad and pencil. He had the cognitive capacity to learn and was willing to do so. He committed, so I committed back. The results spoke for themselves: He went from making $2 million in profits to $100 million.
WORK TO POLISH THE HIDDEN GEMS
People who create friction are bound to cross your path at some point in your leadership. But because people don’t always create problems on purpose, be wary of applying the label of “difficult” too quickly. Instead, think about what type of coaching the individual needs from you to shine.
That person who keeps picking apart the team’s work? They’ll probably respond positively if you take them aside and explain that they need to be more sensitive to the pride people have in what they do. You can ask the employee who always tosses out ideas ahead of everyone else to hang back a bit because you’d like to help others feel confident in thinking critically and sharing concepts. In these cases, you can reassure the worker they’re doing a good job and you want to help everyone do their best.
As you provide these one-on-one supports, encourage others to consider whether the difficult person has been successful in other environments, and give everyone time to decide whether it makes sense to establish a deeper mentor-mentee relationship with them. You won’t keep everyone who’s difficult around, but the able ones who are willing to change will likely become worth their weight in gold.
CEO of Merchants Fleet, transforming the company’s business model and creating a new fleet industry category known as FleetTech.