“She’s a difficult employee.” “He’s difficult to work with.” ”They get the job done but they make life difficult for other teams.” We’ve all either said or heard expressions like this many times at work. But that doesn’t mean that we all mean exactly the same thing when we use the word “difficult”. Nor does it mean that the employee or employees in question are incompetent or poor workplace performers.
It’s A Label
The word “difficult” is merely a label. It means whatever the person using it wants it to mean for whatever reason. Frankly, it’s a label no sensible manager uses. And sensible managers shouldn’t let the label “difficult” colour their opinion of employee performance.
Three Major Reasons
There are many reasons why an employee may be described as “difficult”. But there are three main reasons.
- They were a “difficult employee” before you employed them
- Something’s happened in your workplace that’s caused them to be regarded as difficult
- Their personal circumstances have changed and this has affected the way they go about their job.
The first is a reflection on your staff selection practices. The second reflects a workplace issue of issues that needs to be resolved. The third may suggest a need for professional counseling or advice. You’re not a psychologist. If the personal distress can’t be readily resolved, send for professional help.
The Selection Issue
As famous performance technologist Tom Gilbert says, “performance is what you leave behind. Behaviour is what you take with you.” If a job applicant is an ill tempered bully with his current employer, he or she is unlikely to change just because of a change of employers. It’s easy to dismiss or ignore behavioural inadequacies in a job candidate who, in every other respect seems to be “Just what I’m looking for”.
I suggest that you try to raise behavioural issues with shortlisted candidates so that they can be discussed. Raise questions about stressful issues that may make it difficult to perform well in the vacant role. Let’s say that effective supplier liaison is essential but some major suppliers are “less than sympathetic” to your needs.
Take real examples from your company and describe them in detail to the applicant. Ask whether they’ve been involved in those situations in other jobs, what action they took to resolve the issue and whether they were successful. Discuss the candidate’s responses with them in depth.
Finally, always use a probation period before confirming a new applicant. This gives both you and the new employee an “out”.
Resist the temptation to “help” by “playing psychologist”. Do what you can to help the employee resolve the situation. Remember it’s the employee’s problem. If necessary, steer them towards the appropriate professional help.
The On Job Source
This is the area that you can do something about. But there are a few ground rules to be observed.
- How successful is the employee in following performance systems and satisfying performance goals?
- Does the “difficult employee” label reflect personal dislike by one or some co-workers?
- Is the employee carrying the “difficult” label as a result of events that happened in the past? e.g. “Young Leon’s always been difficult to manage.”
- Are co-workers or other managers using the “difficult employee” label because the employee concerned performs more effectively than they do?
- Is the employee regarded as “difficult” because he or she fails to conform with certain social mores that are highly valued in the work group?
- Is the word “difficult” used to highlight faults such as dishonesty, selfishness, lack of personal worth, excessive ambition or reluctance to accept team obligations?
- Is the label broadly accepted by most co-workers or just by one or two who simply don’t like the employee concerned?
What Do They Mean
When an employee is labeled “difficult”, always try to ascertain what the label means and describes. Remember, don’t ask “Why do you call him “difficult”? Questions starting with “why” will usually generate mere speculation and opinion. Instead, ask “What does Jack – or Jenny – do that makes you call him or her “difficult”. Please give me some specific examples of how their being a “difficult employee” makes it harder for you to do your job?
Face To Face
If one of your employees seems to be causing unrest by being a “difficult employee”, you may need to talk to them. Just remember:
- Emphasize that effective on job performance is your prime concern.
- You’re speaking with them because the label is affecting performance.
- Seek input from the employee about why he or she believes that they’ve been labelled “difficult”.
- Ensure that they are crystal clear about your expectations of them especially where performance systems and performance standards are concerned.
- Employees respond to what you do as well as say. Are your actions consistent with your words?
- Ensure that both you and the employee agree on a plan to resolve the issues leading to the “difficult” label.
The “Niceness Trap”
How much is “niceness” valued in your business culture? It’s easy to unwittingly cause employees to believe that “good interpersonal relationships” are very important. Remember, good interpersonal relationships are usually the result of effective teamwork not a prerequisite for it.
- As manager you must present a totally unambiguous business focus and a precise small specific target market to employees. If you aren’t sure, how can they be?
- Always explain business decisions to employees in terms they not only understand but can easily make sense of.
- Be careful that you’re not seen to spend more time and attention on helping the “difficult employee” than on conscientious, co-operative contributors. If you’re seen that way, you’ll unearth more “difficult employees”. The good contributors will see “difficult” as a way of gaining your attention.
The “difficult employee” can be a major problem. But sorting out the “difficulty” isn’t rocket science. Your overall goal is to enable your employees to successful run your business on a day to day basis. That’s the best way to enable you to manage. There’s bound to be the odd difficulty in pursuing such a worthy ideal.
What To Do Now
What does “difficult employee” mean in your business? Is it a helpful description of a broad imprecise label? Is it behavior based or performance based? Please leave a comment below. If you’d like my respone to a particular issue, email me direct on email@example.com And thanks for reading this blog post.