The Difficult Employee
Eventually, most people managers have to deal with an employee who is difficult. According to new manager training participants, these challenging situations often feel like you are speaking different languages. The difficult employee never seems to fully understand what you are asking of them and can even appear resentful of your attempts to set them on the right course. How can you better understand your employees?

This has been described as difficult employees balking, arguing, misunderstanding, and getting angry.

What can you do as a manager to “fix” such an employee and to create higher levels of employee engagement?

Start with Communication and Understanding
It’s all about communication and understanding that begins with being empathetic. As the manager, you need to step back and think through how you can approach this employee more effectively and get a good feel for what’s going on from their point of view.  

A Proven Model
A recent experiment reported by the Journal of Family Psychology with 155 mixed-sex couples examined what can work in defusing conflict and reaching resolution. Observers found that when one partner was able to clearly express their feelings and the other listened until they accurately understood, there was open communication and shared empathy that lasted beyond just the immediate disagreement. Of course, such positive resolutions require that one side is able to describe their own feelings and the other is able to listen attentively and with empathy.

Experts followed through to recommend steps on how to handle these challenging conversations and raise the relationship to a more productive and positive level. The steps include slowing down and sharing one feeling or bit of information at a time, pausing and checking in for accurate understanding, and reflecting on what worked.

In the Workplace
These same steps can work with a difficult employee — the one who is antagonistic and frustrated.

  1. Slow Down
    First, scale down the temperature and eliminate the emotion that can undermine trust and inhibit the safe sharing of feelings. Convey that you want to improve communication so that you can work together more productively.

    Next, try to share your genuine feelings about wanting to repair the relationship and how it hurts both personally and professionally to have these misunderstandings.

    Ask if your employee is having similar feelings and to express them as well as they can.
  1. Listen and Check for Accuracy
    Turn your full attention to the employee and listen closely. Then confirm that you got their feelings right — not just the words that they said — to ensure you grasped the real meaning.

  2. Reflect on the Conversation
    Talk about how the process worked. Do you feel more empathy for the feelings of the other? Does this improve the communication for future conversations and raise the manager-employee relationship to a more productive level?

The Bottom Line
Don’t let a difficult employee sap your management energy. As a manager, it is your job to work to repair misunderstandings and improve two-way communication with your team members.

To learn more about how to better understand your employees, download Top Tips to Increase Employee Engagement through Communication

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