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Managing Difficult Employees

By Dr Jane Freeman And Dr Teresa Watson

The Mount Everest of the Managerial World?

Tearing your hair out over an employee or colleague who is behaving as if they are in the sandpit rather than the boardroom? Losing sleep over the resistance of a team to working collectively? You’re not alone. Poor employee behaviours increase levels of anxiety in teams, reduce productivity and can lead to entrenched difficulties engaging with management. Research shows difficult employee behaviour has been noted as a significant contributor to valued staff leaving organisations.

In addition, research also shows that the biggest challenge faced by managers is understanding and negotiating interpersonal relationships. We are not born being effective managers of people. We learn what works, and what doesn’t, often through trial and error that frequently can leave you as a manager feeling burned out and frustrated. Instead of traversing the peaks and ravines of trial and error it can be helpful for managers to learn to approach difficult employee behaviours from a psychological perspective.

But what does this actually mean? Psychologists explain different behaviours as occurring due to a set of cognitive and behavioural circumstances in the person and environment that allow a behaviour to occur. When you have a good understanding of what these are, your strategies for intervention with difficult employee behaviours are much more likely to be effective

Why Do Employees Behave Badly?

It can be very frustrating, disruptive, and even hurtful when employees start behaving in ways that we interpret as unprofessional, obstructive or just plain nasty. However, it can be helpful to think of the psychology of behaviour when interpreting some difficult employee behaviours. Why? Because when you know what the root cause of a behaviour is you are more likely to adopt an informed, effective strategy to manage it. And it can allow you to be more empathic to your employee rather than personalising their behaviour as vindictive. There are many reasons why an employee may not be behaving in the way that you would like. Here are a few to consider:

  1. Humans tend to act differently in groups than in individual settings. When humans get together as a group, there is a decrease in their sense of individual responsibility and they can become ‘de-individualised.’ This means individuals can gravitate towards the dominant behaviour of a group which may be different to how they would behave as an individual. As humans we have a strong desire to fit in social groups which means individuals can often conform to a group norm that is different to their own view. In this process individuals can turn a blind eye to behaviours that normally they would not accept or endorse.
  2. All behaviour serves a purpose and has a function. Workplaces are a social microcosm of employees’ relationships outside of work. That is, as individuals start to become comfortable in their work environment how they interact in the workplace starts to reflect how they manage their personal relationships. This can lead to dysfunctional behaviours being replicated in the workplace.
  3. Some employees simply do not cope well with change. When humans feel threatened (in the workplace this is often due to the prospect of their environment changing) we see undesirable traits and behaviours rushing to the surface as they try and cope (albeit inappropriately) to the prospect of change.

What To Do About It?

Most employees have the insight and professional courtesy to realise what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour at work. Some do not. Others can engage in inappropriate behaviours when the ‘pack mentality’ or a group culture of poor behaviour sets in. These difficult behaviours need to be dealt with directly with the individual and the approach taken will be dependent on the type and function of the behaviour.

Case Study: The Passive-Aggressive Employee

Cath managed a team of 8 employees. She started to notice that one of her employees (let’s call her Betty) was engaging in covert undermining behaviours such as rolling her eyes at team meetings when Cath talked about new initiatives. Cath decided to broach the subject with Betty in her next individual performance appraisal. Much to Cath’s surprise, Betty became highly indignant and told her that she was mistaken and being paranoid. Cath was confused and even started to doubt herself. She ended up apologising to Betty and wishing she had never brought the subject up.

An entire article could be written about managing passive aggressive behaviours! This case study nicely illustrates a very common outcome when dealing with passive aggressive behaviours – denial, and further passive aggressive resistance. Often, people like Betty who use passive aggressive modes of communication (i.e. communicating negative emotions through ambiguous, undermining ways) have learned that this is an acceptable way to behave. They may have had poor role models for being able to assertively say what they really think.

As a manager, it is vital that you promote assertive communication and highlight to your team that passive aggressive behaviours are not healthy. Cath was helped to recognise that the function of the Betty’s behaviour was to create doubt over Cath’s leadership ability and decrease team motivation for the new initiatives. It became a self fulfilling prophecy when Cath did start to really doubt her own ability. Cath learned ways to challenge her own unhelpful thinking when confronted by passive aggressive behaviours and tried out new ways of communicating assertively and immediately to her whole team that such behaviours were not professional.

Like Cath, some managers become worried that by confronting a behaviour they will be interpreted as aggressive. This was the reason she chose to initially deal with Betty’s behaviour behind closed doors. The difficulty with this way is that the lesson is not shared with the rest of the team, and the employee has a better opportunity to deny the behaviour. Cath learned that assertively highlighting a behaviour (without directly confronting an individual) with the whole team was the most effective way of extinguishing it.

At the next team meeting when she saw Betty roll her eyes she said in a confident voice:

I’m noticing there is some eye-rolling going on. That’s not the type of communication this team is known for, and not something I believe we should be engaging in. I’m all for healthy debate about these topics. What are people’s thoughts?

The eye rolling did not happen again!

What About Me?

As a manager, an important part of being effective, and dealing with difficult behaviours is managing yourself well. If you want to reach the summit of effective management you need to establish a good base camp. That is, challenging your own unhelpful thinking patterns. These patterns are the thoughts you have rushing through your head about yourself and your employees which, left unchecked and unchallenged, can make resolving difficult behaviours in others even harder.

Let’s look at a couple of common examples of thoughts about difficult employee behaviour that lead to unhelpful emotions and reactions in managers:

This is unfair, why can’t I have a team of nice people? The other team seem to all get along.

Ruminating about the unfairness of having to deal with challenging employee behaviour, or comparing your team to a seemingly well-functioning team, is not helpful. It will likely create envy and resentment which won’t be helpful emotions for you as a manager long- term. Instead, acknowledge the fact that you are having difficulty with some (not all) of your current employees’ behaviour and problem solve your way towards creating a system that reinforces positive behaviours and assertively confronts negative ones.

For example, take some time to understand why the employee is behaving in a certain way, how they have learned that this is something that works for them (why else do people continue with a behaviour if it does not provide them with something in return?), and seek assistance, if needed, to create a plan to help the employee create an alternative way of acting.

I don’t know what to do, this is making me look incompetent. If I just ignore them they might go away.

It is so tempting to avoid doing something that is difficult! Particularly if the difficult behaviour is falling just below your tolerance threshold. However, it is useful to remember the basic principles of behavioural learning here. Reinforce/reward behaviours that you want to increase in your employees, and give a clear negative consequence to behaviours you want to decrease. It is important that your reinforcement is consistent and immediate. Interestingly, research has shown humans are more motivated by immediate reward (even if this is small) than a large reward that is presented in the future. We know if you ignore an undesirable behaviour (e.g. eye-rolling in team meetings) you are effectively sending a message that this behaviour is acceptable and there are no negative consequences for its continuation.

3 Key Factors for Managers to Keep in Mind

  1. Difficult employee behaviours are an expected part of our professional life. They may occur at times when an individual employee is trying to cope with an identified stress or when employees find it difficult to manage or cope with changes in their environment.
  2. Some difficult employee behaviours are pervasive across settings and time. Employees with persistent behaviour difficulties may repeatedly revert to these behaviours despite your attempts to manage them consistently. When this occurs, do not be afraid to seek professional assistance in constructing a plan to help you manage this type of employee.
  3. Part of effectively managing difficult employee behaviours is being able to challenge your own unhelpful thinking patterns that can lead to ineffective and unhelpful ways of dealing with the difficult behaviours. This part you can control and specialist assistance can help you learn effective and helpful ways of influencing your employees, your boss and yourself.

Climbing any mountain requires planning, skill and tenacity. Managing difficult employee behaviour also requires these key components and an effective and successful ascent also needs guides and expert advice.

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