difficult team member

How to Deal with a Difficult Team Member

By Sean Boscombe

Is your office working as one happy family? Some would argue that the people you work with are just as important as the members of your real family. After all, you spend all day every (working) day with them, so it’s essential that everybody gets on for the business to be successful.

Let’s face it, difficult co-workers can be a nightmare. They can upset your positive mind-set, add needless stress, lower productivity and make your working day a miserable experience. From a management point of view, there’s nothing more disruptive to staff morale and the smooth running of the office than having disharmonious staff relations. So what do you do? These tips will help you and your team get back to work, even if you have a difficult team member.

Don’t let it fester.

As a rule of thumb, the sooner you deal with a difficult colleague or team member, the better. Why is the person being so difficult? Try to get to the bottom of the issue rather than let the undesirable situation become entrenched and make the problem worse, which may then require more drastic efforts to put it right. Once you identify the underlying cause that leads to the problematic behavioral pattern, you can take action to resolve the situation with the minimum of fuss or fallout.

Communicate clear messages.

Is there clarity about the roles and responsibilities that the troublesome colleague is expected to carry out? Be very clear about the message you convey when you communicate with a co-worker or member of your team, both in writing and orally, to make sure they know exactly what they are being asked to do and why. Ambiguity can lead to confusion and misunderstanding, which can lead to insecurity and vulnerability, which can lead to defensiveness, frustration, hostility and general negativity – a vicious circle that can easily be averted.

Show your appreciation.

Everyone likes to be appreciated for their efforts, and positive feedback is surely a key driver for all employees. However, it is often harder to see the positive qualities and valuable skills of a colleague who is displaying difficult behavior. Try to get behind the chicken-and-egg dilemma: what was there first – feeling unappreciated or acting out? By showing a real interest in the team member’s input, listening to his ideas, praising his efforts and suggesting constructive ways he could improve his performance, you’re offering a clear and positive strategy for him to pursue.

Listen, then respond calmly.

Sometimes, all that’s needed is a friendly ear. Make the person in question feel validated by scheduling an individual chat to give them the opportunity to let off steam. It doesn’t automatically mean you have to agree with the problem being vented or that you should back down after a verbal ear bashing – in fact, it’s the worst thing you can do; it will send all the wrong signals. Instead, once the grievance has been fully explained, put forward your own, rational counter-argument, remaining calm, respectful and in command at all times.

Be in charge.

Don’t let a disruptive team member undermine your management authority. This is easier said than done, of course, and it may be worth re-examining your management style to see if you are perhaps too nice-but-weak or too ‘just do it’ autocratic. There are many subtle ways in which your management vulnerabilities can be exploited – from interrupting in meetings to ignoring tasks to generally running rings around you. To be an effective manager, you need to learn to take a firm stand and re-establish your authority. Be friendly but not a doormat; be respectful but purposeful. And if necessary, be forceful but not unpleasant.

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Sean Boscombe
Sean Boscombe is an online marketer from the days of dial up, now specialising in small business management - and writing in conjunction with London office rental specialists Stuart Neils.

2 comments

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  1. These are good approaches to what can be an awkward situation. Having worked in retail management and having to have not so great conversations with people I worked with for years prior, there’s definitely a right and wrong way to handle this kind of thing.

  2. These tips are excellent. I think they work well in many different scenarios. I feel like the most important is to listen and respond calmly.

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