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Managing difficult employees: 8 genius steps to deal with disruptive people

a man taking work for granted shows the need for managing difficult employees

At some point in your career as a manager, you will have the unpleasant experience of managing difficult employees. And while it’s frustrating for anyone, thankfully, it’s not without recourse.

Below, we’ll go over an eight-step process you can take to make managing difficult employees easier, and hopefully, help you avoid having to terminate someone on your team.

Table of contents
Consider alternative explanations.
Step back and assess the situation.
Review your company policy and the employee’s contract.
Ask questions and listen.
Collaborate with the employee on a path to improvement.
Check in frequently.
Acknowledge improvement, or enforce consequences
Turn managing difficult employees into an opportunity for growth

Consider alternative explanations.

Is the person truly a “difficult employee,” or is there an unmet need that is causing unwanted actions? This is not meant to excuse unacceptable behavior, but part of being a good leader is identifying and removing roadblocks that prevent your employees from doing their best work. You can set them up for success by playing to their strengths. In our 20 years of research here at F4S, we’ve identified 48 work motivations that explain strengths and blind spots, which can shed light on the reasons behind your problematic employee’s behavior.

Some alternative explanations for difficult employees might be:

  • Perception: The difficult employee lacks motivation for their work.
  • Reality: The employee is highly motivated toward what in F4S is called Difference, which means they crave variety in their work. Consistency and sameness bore them. What this employee needs is to be challenged with new projects.
  • Perception: The difficult employee takes too long to make decisions and doesn’t grasp instructions well.
  • Reality: The employee is a kinesthetic learner, but because you give them information via reports and emails, they’re having a hard time grasping the information. They need to get their hands on the product or try a demo before they can process the information and make a good decision.
  • Perception:  The difficult employee is cranky toward coworkers and easily distracted.
  • Reality: The employee is highly motivated toward a Solo Environment, which means they gain energy and focus best working independently in their own space. By forcing them to work in a shared space or in groups all the time, they become distracted and can’t do their best work—which would make anyone cranky. What they need is some private space to recharge and concentrate.

But how can you know exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are? You don’t have to guess. You can sign up for F4S for free here and have your entire team take the assessment.

Step back and assess the situation.

As stressful and urgent as the situation may feel, it’s important to avoid jumping to conclusions. Before you start disciplining the employee, evaluate the situation. Be able to clearly explain what the problem is and what you would like to see improve. 

Not only will this inform how you manage the employee, but it will also prove useful when you get to the next steps, which include having to clearly communicate the problem to the difficult employee.

Begin managing difficult employees by asking the following questions:

  • What exactly makes this employee difficult? Is it their behavior toward other colleagues? Or is it their conduct toward their manager? Is it their work performance? Or is it their attitude toward their work?
  • How have this employee’s actions negatively affected the company? Has it decreased employee morale? Has it caused you to miss deadlines or lose clients? When possible, quantify the losses.
  • On the flip side, how has this employee positively contributed to the company? It’s just as important to see the value in this employee as it is to see the difficulties. This will help you understand to what lengths you’re willing to go to rehabilitate the employee instead of terminating them. 
  • What do you want to see get better? Can you pinpoint exactly what you want to see improve? This is essential to communicate to the difficult employee.
  • By what deadline do you need to see this improvement? If this employee’s actions are negatively impacting your team, you don’t have time to wait around. Giving them a firm deadline and milestones for when you’d like to see changes is crucial to their success. 
  • What will happen if you do not see an improvement? For a goal to be effective, it must have real consequences for not reaching it. Let the employee know what’s at stake here.

Review your company policy and the employee’s contract.

Review the employee’s work contract and your own employer policies to see if the employee is in violation of anything and to find out the disciplinary and termination measures you can take. There may be things within these documents that will dictate the way you go about managing difficult employees.

Ask questions and listen.

First, listen to the people who work with the problematic employee. What issues are they running into that make it challenging to work with this person? Pay attention to the adjectives they use, and always ask them to back up those assertions with concrete examples. This is essential to avoid misinterpretation.

For example, if someone says that a colleague is “disrespectful,” ask them, “Can you give some examples of how they are disrespectful?” The more detail they can provide, the better.

Next, speak with the difficult employee one-on-one. Communicate the issues that both you and their colleagues have identified and how it is negatively affecting their team and the company. Be mindful of your word choice here. Rather than directly blaming the employee, make it clear that these are observations and interpretations that others have made.

For example, if your team tells you that this employee doesn’t put forth effort anymore:

Don’t say: “Why don’t you care about your work?” Instead, try to phrase it in a less accusatory way and give concrete examples.

Do say: “Some of your teammates have expressed concern about the amount of effort you’re putting into your work. For example, you’ve been late to the last three team meetings, and the report they asked you to put together last Friday was filled with errors. Maybe I’m misinterpreting what’s going on. Would you like to explain what I might be missing?”

Collaborate with the employee on a path to improvement.

Now that you’ve gathered the evidence and heard all sides of the story, it’s time to make a plan for managing difficult employees and improving their behavior or performance. In some cases, this might require a formal performance improvement plan, but here’s a caveat: PIPs get a bad rap, and your employee may assume it’s just a formal step toward a firing (especially if it contains goals that are impossible to reach). But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Before reaching for the PIP, if you value this employee and strive to be a good leader, sit down and collaborate with them. This is when you might want to employ coach-style leadership. Point out some areas that need strengthening, ask them what they need from you and provide that support. Assist them in setting goals that are challenging but achievable. It also helps to break the goals up into more manageable milestones and set deadlines to hold them accountable.


Any time a complaint is brought against an employee, it’s essential to document it for future reference and to spot any patterns. Additionally, if you do end up needing to terminate this employee, documentation can serve as evidence that you did so rightfully.

Check in frequently.

Change is hard. Your support as a manager is essential to your employee’s success. By giving them regular, personalized attention, you’ll show you want them to succeed, which can boost morale and engagement. In fact, Gallup found that regularly meeting with their managers could triple an employee’s likelihood of being engaged.

If you’re not already doing so, consider implementing one-on-ones with the problematic employee. This will give them the privacy to speak openly to you about their struggles and progress.

Acknowledge improvement, or enforce consequences

In the happy case that your difficult employee starts to change their ways, reward them! This does not mean you have to give them an Employee of the Month award or anything grandiose. Simply acknowledging and appreciating their efforts can go a long way in terms of employee engagement. According to the 2019 O.C. Tanner Global Culture Report, employees whose leaders don’t recognize their accomplishments are “42% less likely to be engaged.”

But what happens if you’ve listened to the difficult employee, communicated your concerns and the possible consequences and worked with them to improve—but they still haven’t changed? Now comes the unpleasant part, a part no manager enjoys: enforcing consequences.

What this looks like varies by situation and degree of difficulty, but it might mean:

  • Providing the employee with a written or verbal warning
  • Transferring them to a different department
  • Placing them on administrative leave
  • Requiring them to undergo training
  • Putting them on a performance improvement plan
  • Terminating the employee

Turn managing difficult employees into an opportunity for growth

Perfecting the art of managing difficult employees will pay off in your role as a leader. No good manager wants to fire an employee they hired, invested in and genuinely care about. By following this eight-step process, you can help ensure you’ve done the best you can to bring out the best in any employee.

Need help motivating even your most difficult employees and smoothing over team conflict? Sign up for F4S for free today.

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