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3 Essential Skills in Dealing with Difficult Employees

When I worked in the corporate world and began leading and managing people, I realized I was terrible at it! Because I was good at my job, I would advance but I had no idea how to deal with employees. Initially, I seemed to go from one extreme to the other. It was a hot mess. My boss was frustrated with me and my yearly evaluations…not good. Every time I thought I was doing the right thing; it was more of the wrong thing. I took trainings, did 360 reviews, and then worked on things that came out of that feedback. Finally, with more experience, and getting my PhD in Clinical Psychology, I felt like I had a grasp on how to lead and manage people. I have not worked in the corporate world for many years but still, have good relationships with the employees I worked with. 

Being a leader is hard, particularly when it comes to managing employees and you typically never get any training to lead or manage others. Once I learned the reasons why some employees are challenging, what my responsibility was in each scenario and how to effectively deal with the situation, I became much better at leading. You do not need a PhD but you do need training and coaching because effectively leading and managing people is so important. We not only determine how well someone does in their job, but we also influence how they feel about themselves.

Why are employees difficult? 

Employees generally don’t mean to be difficult. Most strive to be effective at work. The top 3 reasons that commonly lead to challenging employees: 

  • they feel overwhelmed with too many tasks
  • they don’t understand what they are supposed to be doing 
  • they are afraid to ask for help 

But are these reasons the employee’s fault? 

As a manager, what is your responsibility with difficult employees? 

You can be responsible for an employee not feeling supported and there’s likely a lack of communication.

When I work with my business clients (C-Suite and entrepreneurs) the first conversation is, “What training do you have for leading people?” Some have a little on-the-job experience, but many do not have any formal training in this area. Most people get to where they are not based on how they lead people but how well they do the job. And the higher you go the more training you need leading people. Getting this training/coaching is your responsibility if you want to be effective in your role and want to help others be effective in their role. 

It is your job to help employees deal with feeling overwhelmed, understanding the work, and let them know that you are available to answer questions. You are there to support them. This takes knowledge in motivation, goal setting, communication, and being human while leading others. I was working on my PhD in Clinical Psychology while I was working in the corporate world which was incredibly helpful because I was learning all the above and more. 

How can you help difficult employees? 

You cannot lead or manage people based on what you want and need. You must figure out what they want and need and work with the employee based on that information. The first very important step in this process is communication. When I say communication, I don’t mean you talking at an employee, I mean you asking good open-ended questions and listening to the answers. 

You must understand why an employee is getting overwhelmed and help them find a way through. Take responsibility for an employee not understanding their task or role and figure out how to clarify it. Always let the employees know you are there to support them. 

How did I go from terrible to super? 

Sure, my training and education helped me go from pretty terrible to super leader and manager but what worked was so much bigger than those things. I took a person-centered approach. I learned to ask good questions. I listened. I didn’t always fall back on what I “should do’” I let my employees know that I had an open-door policy and was always there to answer their questions. I got to know them as employees and as people. I was genuine and transparent as I could be. I occasionally worked beside my employees in their jobs. I met with them regularly, individually, and as a team. I took them out for coffee. I had lunch brought in. We volunteered together. I let them lead and make mistakes but was there to help clean up. 

Many years ago, an employee came to me asking if her son could do his homework in her office afterschool. Her childcare was no longer available, and she didn’t have another option. My initial reaction was probably like what you are thinking right now: no way! I didn’t say that. I listened. Instead, I said, “Let’s try it on a trial basis. If you can continue to get your work done, then it’s OK with me.” Not only did she get her work done, but she worked harder and was soon afterward promoted into a role she should have had years ago.  

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