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Coach or terminate? Developing a strategy for ‘difficult’ employees

What supervisor or human resources professional hasn’t asked the question: Why can’t people work together without deliberately making the working environment insufferable? Why don’t people use their energy to solve differences instead of lashing out in anger? There may be no easy answers to those questions, but understanding why conflict occurs and following a strategy can ease the hard times. 

Alice Waagen, president of management consulting company Workforce Learning LLC, gave tips on understanding difficult employees during a recent webinar for Business and Legal Resources titled “Get in Front of Your ‘Difficult’ Employee Problem: Conflict Management and Mitigation Strategies That Work.” Her strategy begins with understanding that conflicts often start small and then escalate when left ignored, resulting in lost time and money, increased stress, and even lawsuits.

A wide array of personalities can be deemed “difficult.” The continuum ranges from someone who is occasionally argumentative to someone who fits the bully-tyrant-toxic model, Waagen says.

When faced with a performance gap—either in the quality of someone’s work or in the person’s behavior—the first step is to determine the cause of the problem. Waagen says to ask four questions: Is the person aware of the issue; does the employee possess the necessary competence; are external barriers getting in the way; and is the employee motivated to solve the problem?

“At first sign of a performance gap, ask those questions,” Waagen says. She’s found that often performance gaps are known but not corrected because the workplace culture doesn’t hold people accountable.

Conflict triggers
Waagen identifies four triggers that often cause difficult employees to act inappropriately:

  • Competence: Employees may be difficult if they perceive a threat to their intelligence or abilities. If competence is a strong trigger, the person has a heightened sensitivity to being slighted, judged, or insulted.
  • Inclusion: Some people have a heightened sensitivity to feeling excluded from a group or event.
  • Autonomy: Others are especially sensitive to being manipulated, tested, or managed and often consider themselves micromanaged.
  • Worthiness: Some people are especially sensitive to feeling unappreciated or undervalued.

“Once an individual understands what the triggers are, then the next step is trying to see how to avoid those situations,” Waagen says. Using an issues log can help. When the person engages in conflict behavior, he or she is instructed to write down what caused it. Was it a threat to competence, maybe someone questioning the person’s expertise? Did the person feel excluded? Was it a threat to autonomy that made the person feel micromanaged? Or maybe it was a threat to the person’s worthiness, something that made him or her feel unappreciated.

Waagen says the individual, rather than an observer, needs to keep the log because reasons for conflict are unique and personal and an observer might not judge triggers correctly.

“If a person has consistent anger management issues that are perceived as being threatening by others in the organization … then they need to be counseled to get some professional help,” Waagen says, perhaps through an employer’s employee assistance program. But those who just occasionally lose their cool can benefit from understanding their triggers.

Examining triggers can help difficult employees ask themselves questions like “Can’t I switch the lens that I’m observing this stuff in and say it’s really not all about me, it’s really not a big deal. I just need to take some deep breaths and deal with it in a calmer fashion.”

Structuring a conversation
Dealing with conflict often requires the “difficult conversation” in which a supervisor or HR professional needs to sit down with the person causing conflict. Waagen says those conversations should cover three essential components:

  • Behavior—what you saw or heard or did not see or hear.
  • Context—the circumstance surrounding the behavior.
  • Impact—the consequences of the action or inaction.

The conversation should follow an agenda that begins with the supervisor or HR professional stating the essential components, Waagen says. Then the employee should tell his or her story without anyone else involved in the conversation interrupting. This stage may reveal details the supervisor wasn’t aware of.

Then it’s time for the supervisor or HR professional to state his or her understanding of the story without the employee interrupting, Waagen says. The conversation winds up with an exploration of ways to resolve the problem.