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Team-Building: The Care & Feeding of Difficult People
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Team-Building: The Care & Feeding of Difficult People - Executive Leadership Articles

Team-Building: The Care & Feeding of Difficult People

Executive Leadership Articles

Team-Building: The Care & Feeding of Difficult People

When it comes to working with difficult members of your team, there is the practical advice—with steps to take and paper trails to leave—and then there is the touchy-feely advice. We’ve seen both in action, and while there is much to recommend both approaches, we lean in favor of touchy-feely, because difficult behavior can be seen from the outside as surly, defensive, overly competitive, impatient, or short-tempered, or it can be seen (as best as possible) from the inside as stressed-out, lonely, insecure, sad, or anxious. It’s a lot easier to address the behaviors; it’s not as easy to address the person inside. Still, managing people means knowing people, and people are touchy-feely beings.

Before we get into strategies, we should spell out a few assumptions. First, we assume the difficult person does good work, or for some other reason is a desirable team member. Second, we assume that the difficult team member isn’t doing anything illegal, abusive, threatening, or otherwise grounds for immediate termination. There’s difficult and then there’s dangerous, and we’re not here for danger in the workplace. To these assumptions, we’d like to add a third: that the team member wants to be good at the job and wants you to be pleased with his or her performance. This may not be the case, but in most situations you can at least get the person to say it is.

That last assumption is important, because it allows you to frame the problem in terms of the difficult person’s needs, wants, or goals, and it opens the doors to better communication. Now it’s not “I need you to bet nicer to work with,” but “Let’s work together to realize your goals,” “How can I help you get what you need?” There are no shortcuts to overcoming difficult behavior, but when the difficult person is on board with improving, it can be a lot less painful. If possible, get into this space with this employee, and work individually with him or her toward a stated goal.

How you guide the difficult team member toward the goal depends largely on how you (together) articulate the goal, but as teacher-mentor-supervisor, you have certain advantages in the power differential. The manner in which you leverage the differential can make an enormous difference, and nothing works better than kindness. Yes, the iron hand can have more immediate results, but they seldom last, and they’re only superficial. Kindness takes more time and effort, but it leads to more genuine results. In every interaction with this person, be kind in your responses. What does this person really need to hear? We’re not talking about ego-stroking, although there may be some of that. We’re talking about being responsive to the person in each moment, which can be a courtesy laugh at a joke, a hand with a difficult task, or just a listening ear. Difficult people are people, and people aren’t built to respond negatively, over time, to genuine kindness.

An offshoot of kindness is sensitivity. This is difficult to explain, but perhaps you’ve been the recipient of such sensitivity. People gifted with sensitivity seem to know intuitively how best to relate to someone. Sometimes it’s good-natured ribbing; sometimes it’s casual chat about a favorite kind of music or sport. Sometimes it’s genuine interest in someone else’s kids and family, or in the person’s work. When someone is good at what he or she does, “How did you do that?” is an extremely validating question, and it applies (in different forms) to other areas of a person’s life. “Hey, you were right about that football game. How did you know?” “How do you balance your family life with work at a time like this?” Sometimes, getting along with people is about mutual understanding and caring, and it often begins with little things like this. Soon, members of your team will ask you, “How do you do that?” when they see the rapport you’re building.

And that’s where the real team-building begins. It’s one thing for a boss to get along with an employee; it’s another for the other employees to get along with him or her as well. If other keen-eyed employees don’t follow your lead on their own, you may have to tap into the leadership of one or two who haven’t yet given up on getting along with the difficult person. You may never gain the universal feel-good of everyone in the office getting along like best buddies, but one or two coworkers reaching out, over time, can be the key.

It’s important to be aware, as you work with this difficult person, that your problem employees get an unfair share of your time and energy. The squeaky wheel does get the grease, and this isn’t fair to all the other non-squeaky wheels you’re managing. Make a concerted effort to spread some of that energy around in similar fashion: kindness, sensitivity, goals, all of it. Talk to each person here and there about such things, and try to make some kind of personal contact with as many people as you can, even if it’s just “Good morning” and “How was your weekend?” Good team-building means building relationships throughout, and you want to keep the good stuff going while you work on the problems. It will make a difference!


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Team-Building: The Care & Feeding of Difficult People - Executive Leadership Articles

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