5 Leadership Pitfalls of Dealing with Difficult Employees

5 Leadership Pitfalls of Dealing with Difficult Employees

Leadership is solving problems and dealing with difficult people. Whether it’s due to behavioral issues, performance concerns, or clashes in personalities, effectively managing difficult employees requires finesse and tact. Unfortunately, leaders may unknowingly fall into common pitfalls, hindering the resolution of issues and potentially exacerbating the situation. In this post, we’ll explore the five common pitfalls of dealing with difficult employees and provide insights on how to avoid them to foster a harmonious and productive work environment. And as always, we encourage solving problems with empathy first!

The five most common leadership pitfalls of dealing with difficult employees are avoiding confrontation, lack of clarity and expectations, focusing solely on the negative, overlooking support and development, and failing to set boundaries. There are many other pitfalls, but most leadership mistakes fall into these five.

Let’s take a look at each, and share some stories!

Avoiding Confrontation

If there is one thing I could drill into every leader it’s this; problem employees will not destroy an organization. Failing to deal with them will. One of the most common pitfalls is avoiding confrontation with difficult employees. Leaders may choose to ignore problematic behavior, hoping it will resolve itself or believing that addressing the issue might escalate tensions. However, avoiding confrontation only allows the problem to persist and can negatively impact team morale.

“Problem employees will not destroy an organization. Failing to deal with them will.”

~The Arise Tribe~

I once worked for an organization whose leader was tremendously charismatic, likable, and was a true visionary. They got people to buy into their vision and inspired them to action. But, they were a terrible leader for one reason, and it was a big one. They refused to deal with problems, especially problem employees.

My direct supervisor at the time was an abusive hellspawn whom I’m pretty sure Satan himself had a talk with them they needed to settle down a bit. (You can read about the phenomenon of awful people ending up in leadership here.) Numerous employees lodged harassment and abuse complaints with HR, and the leader of the organization turned a blind eye to the problem. They hated confrontation. They truly wanted everything to be candy and rainbows. But my demonic supervisor was not going to let that happen. So, dozens of people left the organization because of a single bad employee and that visionary leader’s goals for the organization were never achieved.

Deal with problem employees! The absolute worst thing you can do is pretend the problem does not exist.

Lack of Clarity and Expectations

Effective communication is a cornerstone of good leadership. Failing to set clear expectations and provide feedback is another pitfall that can hinder employee improvement. Difficult employees may be unaware of their behavior’s impact or unsure about what is expected of them. We have a philosophy that goals should be a.) clear b.) measurable c.) attainable. Especially with problem employees, goals and expectations should be directly measurable. Avoid subjective criteria like, “you were kind of grouchy in the meeting.”

Leaders must communicate clear performance expectations, behavioral standards, and the consequences of not meeting these requirements. Regular feedback sessions can help reinforce these expectations and provide opportunities for employees to make necessary adjustments.

Focusing Solely on the Negative

Here is a good tip for you, not just in leadership but in all relationships. Praise people’s progress. Don’t dwell on deficiencies. What this means is, when an employee makes progress in an area; make a big deal about it! I worked in law enforcement for 14 years, and if someone failed six drug tests in a year, but then only failed two the following year, that is progress! This sounds counter-intuitive but it is backed by mountains of behavioral science research. In order to get people to modify their behavior, praise their progress! Do not focus on “how far they have to go before they reach acceptable.”

The offenders who would get burned out and eventually fail out of the program were often the ones who were yelled at by officers for failing two drug tests. If a person is made to feel no matter how hard they try, it won’t be good enough they will give up. People are capable of, and can change their behavior for the better. But only with the right focus and encouragement!

By the way, being hard on yourself does not work either. Your own self-talk can sabotage your own progress. But, probably a post for another time.

Overlooking Employee Support and Development

To be clear, when we say “deal with difficult employees” we do not mean show them the door at the first sign of trouble. Difficult employees often need support and development opportunities, just like any other team member. Some challenging behaviors may be a result of personal or professional struggles. Neglecting to offer training, coaching, or mentorship to help these employees improve can perpetuate the problem and hinder their growth. Leaders should identify specific areas for development and provide resources and support to help employees enhance their skills and competencies.

Employee assistance programs are available through many employers, or through online methods. Or through a community of great people all striving to be better! The point is, there could be something very difficult and profound driving challenging behavior. Root cause analysis, empathy, and open discussions are the best course for remediation. But, again, regardless of what course you choose anything is better than ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away.

Failing to Set Boundaries and Enforce Consequences

We are big fans of boundaries here! While empathy and support are essential, leaders must also establish boundaries and enforce consequences for repeated negative behavior. Allowing difficult employees to repeatedly cross boundaries without accountability can breed resentment among other team members and erode trust in leadership.

So, remember when we said failing to deal with problem employees can destroy organizations? This is how. The erosion of trust is a major one. It’s crucial to communicate the potential consequences of continued problematic behavior and follow through with appropriate action if needed. Consistent and unilateral enforcement of boundaries ensures a fair and respectful work environment for everyone.

I remember once overhearing a conversation with my boss and another employee which went something like this.

Employee: “Hey Bill. One of the employees dropped their laptop and broke it. Do they have to pay for it out of pocket?
Bill: “Sigh. It depends on who broke it and what their job title is.”

Guess how much fun it was working here where rules did not apply unilaterally to everyone? Spoiler alert: the person who broke their laptop was in upper management and they did not have to pay to replace the laptop they broke.

Anyways, yes dealing with difficult employees is hard. But hey, it’s leadership. Doing hard things is what you signed up for! But as we always say, all things worth doing are hard! Now get out there and lead!

Image credit to https://unsplash.com/@wonderlane

Erik Murrah

Author, nerd, chess player, artist, business owner, runner, mediocre philosopher, outdoorsman. Creator of the Arise Tribe.

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