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Why Women Leaders Should Welcome the Challenge of a Difficult Employee

December 18, 2018

Difficult employees

Did you know that leading difficult people can actually be beneficial to you?

We have all found times when we’ve had to lead difficult people. In retail or business operations, they can deliver poor customer service to your patrons. In project teams, they can slow down the progress of creativity. In any setting, they can drive you up the wall! You probably don’t have to think hard to identify someone you lead who is causing you trouble.

Women in leadership encounter this more often than male leaders do for a variety of reasons, the first of which is the shifting of the workplace. Depending on the industry, some individuals are reporting to their first woman manager, and the change is still catching some people by surprise. The transition to an uncertain dynamic may translate into behaving like a difficult employee. Regardless of their gender, difficult people create a challenge in productivity, team cohesion, and overall work satisfaction.

Benefits of leading difficult employees

But there’s good news. Leading that difficult person actually has a positive side. Here are four ways that you can benefit from this challenge:

Seeing yourself reflected in the interaction. People often feel that they learn a lot about themselves by looking in the mirror, and they do! However, you learn considerably more about yourself when you take note of your interactions and responses to other people. Difficult people have a way of teaching you impulse control and diplomacy, tools you need for leading all people effectively. So each time you’re challenged, make a mental note of your response. If you fall short, course correct the next time.

Getting new ideas. The primary benefit of working on a team is the exchange of ideas with people who have diverse perspectives on problems. That team member with the bad habit of interrupting may have experience that benefits the whole team, including you as its leader—you grow from the collective knowledge sharing. Encourage a change in the habitual interrupting behavior by bringing it to the employee’s attention (one-on-one) and then showing them the value of their contributions.

Poking holes in bad ideas. As valuable as new ideas are, collaboration in a team setting also involves knowing if something is a bad idea. Difficult team members with a propensity for casting doubt and negativity on ideas can also save the team from heading in the wrong direction. Risk identification is all about thinking of worse-case scenarios, so involve even your most difficult team members in the process.

Setting the example for others. I call this the “alpha dog trick.” That difficult person on your team has likely commanded the attention and sometimes the following of other team members. Establishing respectful dominance over this individual sets an example for the rest of the team. And, since in your absence this person is the leader, you can assign him or her the responsibility of ensuring the team adheres to team standards, like showing up for meetings on time.

My Pilates instructor describes that moment when you’re holding a plank and your whole body shakes—what she calls the “tremble of truth.” It’s the point where you are challenging your body, and as a result, developing strength and tone. Difficult people, while making you tremble in other emotions, also have the benefit of challenging your ability to resolve conflict, and that is a skill that will serve you well. Go ahead, flex your muscles and be proud of how much they are helping you grow.

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AMA’s Women’s Leadership Center offers webcasts, presentations, classes, and events year round so that women can increase their leadership skills and form better relationships—even with difficult staff. Sign up for a 2019 WLC membership.
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About The Author

Alana M. Hill, PMP, is principal consultant and CEO of 2Hill Consulting Services. She is an energy industry veteran who paved the way for other women in the industry. Hill has over 20 years of expertise helping individuals and organizations lead change through analysis, strategic planning, communication, and interpersonal skills. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies, small technology companies, and nonprofits, and she is certified in several assessment methods.

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    […] But there’s good news. Leading that difficult person actually has a positive side. Here are four ways that you can benefit from this challenge: Find out here. […]

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