Are They “Unleadable”? How To Guide Difficult Employees Toward Change

March 10, 2017

Difficult employees

Sooner or later, every manager must deal with difficult employees, such as those who grate on others, ignore protocol, or complain constantly. They are the divas, the cynics, and sometimes at higher levels of the organization, the mavericks.

Should managers who encounter such employees “remove or improve them”? That’s the critical choice a business leader will face, according to Alan Willett, president of Oxseeker, a leadership consulting firm. Willett is the author of Leading the Unleadable: How to Manage Mavericks, Cynics, Divas, and Other Difficult People (AMACOM, 2016).

Although “remove” may seem to be a viable choice, Willett cautioned in an interview with AMA’s Edgewise series that it’s not so simple. Those troublesome employees have good qualities too, which the company will lose if they’re fired. Calling out undesirable behavior and guiding employees toward change is the better choice, he said.

When difficult employees are also valuable team members

Willett suggested several steps a leader can take:

Look at termination as a last resort. Cynics and divas, for example, often are good people and smart employees who have great ideas, he said. However, they can sometimes cross a line and become disruptive to the team. If you let such employees go without trying to improve the situation for the good of the group, Willett said, “You’re going to have an empty office pretty soon, because there’s a little bit of a cynic and diva in all of us.”

Provide employees with a compelling goal. The story of one of Willett’s personal heroes—Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton—illustrates how a compelling, unifying goal can bring a team together. Shackleton and his crew were shipwrecked in Antarctica, a predicament that previous explorers had not survived. But Shackleton got everyone to agree with his survival plan. “He gave a compelling goal, one that everybody believed in, and he put his whole soul into making that happen,” Willett said.

Work environments that lack such a unifying goal can give rise to problematic behaviors. “There’s too much room for people’s personalities to grate on each other,” he said. “Give people a mountain to climb that everybody believes in…. They have to grow together as a team to achieve that.”

Set clear expectations and follow up on them. “Too often the managers haven’t made explicit what their expectations of excellence are,” Willett said. If the results you’re looking for are not clear to everyone, those results won’t happen. Managers also need to follow up on the expectations through their typical weekly actions.

Respond to signs of a problem. Often leaders wait too long to address difficult employees. “They noticed the early warning signs of personality issues, but they ignored them or they just fretted about them and didn’t do anything,” he said. They should be calling out the behaviors early on to make a correction.

Managers who take these actions can prevent or solve many problems. “There’s a clear outline and compelling goals, and people gel together to reach those,” Willett said. “They like to work in that kind of environment.”

And, he noted, leaders who choose every day to make a positive difference—for individuals, for their team, and for their customers—will create gratification and even joy for themselves and others.

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American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.

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