Everybody’s worked with a difficult colleague before, whether it’s a passive-aggressive colleague, an explosive boss, or a lazy direct report. But despite their prevalence, many leaders seem to be unwilling or unable to deal with them effectively. And that hurts everyone.

Problem employees can have a negative impact on their team, but also on the career of their boss, our research shows. The good news—if you’re willing to confront your problem employee about unacceptable behaviors, you can probably create a more positive outcome for everyone involved.

We’ve long known that confronting problem employees results in better outcomes for organizations and for leaders themselves. A classic study of managers shows the benefit of taking action: Leaders who consistently confronted problem employees tended to achieve better overall team performance. They’re also more likely to get promoted.

Why You Should Deal with Problem Employees

There are several reasons why confronting problem employees improves results. In some instances, it can result in positive behavioral changes. It may also signal to others what effective behavior looks like, and it indicates that managers are paying attention to the performance of the team. Plus, other group members may be more motivated if they know problem employees are being properly dealt with, rather than being ignored or left to diminish the work and morale of the team.

The effect of these problem employees and others like them is clear. Our research shows problem employees hurt their work groups in 5 primary ways:

  • Eroding trust
  • Reducing innovation
  • Reducing output
  • Disrupting decision-making
  • Damaging the team’s reputation

But that’s not all. Problem employees also hurt their leaders by reducing your effectiveness, impairing your reputation, reducing your desire to stay in the department, decreasing your desire to stay with the organization, and diminishing your chances of a promotion, according to our research.

How to Deal with Problem Employees

So, what can you do about it?

First, recognize that yes, you can increase accountability.

Second, it’s important to consider what kind of problem employee you’re dealing with. To better understand what you’re up against, we studied the scope of the issue by surveying more than 200 global leaders about problem employees they’ve dealt with. We found that these 5 behaviors are most common:

Infographic: Most Common Problem Employee Behaviors

  1. Poor Job Performance. An employee whose work falls below expectations, causing others to constantly have to pick up the slack, can be a tremendous drain on teams—especially when it’s habitual.
  2. Can’t Work Well with Others. Employees who struggle to create positive relationships with their colleagues, clients, or customers can be a liability.
  3. Doesn’t Respond to Coaching. Employees who aren’t responsive to coaching or feedback fail to make necessary changes despite repeated, explicit attempts to work with them.
  4. Resistant to Change. Leaders report issues with employees who resist change, or who may even refuse a change altogether.
  5. Not Responsible for Own Actions. An unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions—and instead blame others—also ranked highly as a common negative attribute, regardless of the exact form the behavior took.

10 Best Practices to Deal with Problem Employees

Based on decades of research and experience, we recommend using our Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) model to give feedback and using the SBI model to explore intent.

Ideally, giving consistent feedback — including praise — will result in better behaviors and performance from all employees. SBI-I can be used to reinforce positive behavior, but we also recommend learning how to have a coaching conversation with your employees.

Difficult conversations are often necessary because better conversations didn’t happen early on. You can get ahead of trouble instead of waiting for it to arrive by helping your organization to have better conversations every day.

When giving feedback, try to remember these 10 best practices:

  1. Be timely and deal with issues as they arise.
  2. Be open to the employee’s perspective.
  3. Keep it short, and let the employee respond.
  4. Show empathy and genuine care.
  5. Don’t sandwich negative feedback between positive reinforcement.
  6. Give positive feedback when it’s deserved.
  7. Aim for a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback.
  8. Practice what you’re going to say, and how.
  9. Aim for behavioral awareness, not “fixing” someone.
  10. Create a favorable environment for feedback.

What if none of that works?

If you’ve repeatedly tried to provide feedback to your problem employee and the difficult conversations still aren’t working, it’s time to consider other options. Sometimes you can help people the most by guiding them to pursue opportunities better suited to their capabilities, though it’s important to approach this with care. Seek involvement and counsel from a supervisor, the HR department, or legal counsel.

Before you escalate a situation, be sure that you’ve made every effort to be fair, and that you’ve kept a written record of the problem behaviors, the impact of these behaviors, and the feedback that you delivered. This could reduce both pushback from your superiors or from the problem employee, and it may lower litigation risks or negative repercussions that might impact internal or public perceptions of your organization.

Hopefully, it won’t rise to that level. But we understand that the daunting possibility is why some leaders make the costly choice to avoid dealing with potential conflict with a problem employee altogether.

Just remind yourself, taking action and dealing with the problem employee is really in the best interest of you, your team, the employee in question, and the entire organization.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Learn how our Better Conversations & Coaching program, a coach training for leaders, which can equip you to hold the difficult conversations and manage problem employees. Or, scale a culture of more effective conversations across your organization with Better Conversations Every Day™.

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