Chances are you know of leaders in your organization who were promoted to management positions based on their performance. In other words, they earned a promotion based on their “hard skills” or technical skills.  They were promoted because they were doing an outstanding job –  but it doesn’t mean they possess the necessary social skills – especially when managing difficult people.

 Managing Difficult People: Do You Feel Like You’re Running an Adult Day Care?

     In conducting management and leadership programs all over the world, managers will tell me they feel like they’re a “babysitter” or referree running an adult day care. And it’s usually regarding just one or two difficult employees. As you know, one bad apple can ruin it for everybody! If you don’t nip it in the bud with the difficult people early on, they become like a cancer that spreads. Soon their continuous bad behavior becomes more of a negative reflection on the boss and not on the difficult employee. Why is that? Because everyone starts to wonder, “Why isn’t anything being done about this?” People begin to view the manager as weak – and enabling the behavior.

     Believe me, I understand that managing difficult people is challenging. When you address the issue you don’t know how they’re going to react. Are they going to cry? Are they going to become defensive?

Managing Difficult People? Nip It In The Bud!! 

     The number one reason why managers and supervisors fail to address problem behavior when managing difficult people is because they want to avoid conflict. Another reason is because sometimes they’re managing a friend or former colleague, and they want to remain a buddy. Unfortunately, by ignoring the issue, the situation spirals out of control. Some workers get to where they can’t take it anymore and leave. Yes, even in this tough economy, I’m hearing of superstars quitting in disgust and taking new jobs elsewhere. To avoid this from happening, consult your HR department (if you have one) before you do anything. They are your best resource.

In Managing Difficult People, Get at the Root Cause of Poor Performance and Take Action

     So, it’s no surprise that the question I’m asked most often is, “How do you deal with a difficult employee”?  Simply put, you can’t control them, but you can control their environment. You want to do everything possible to coach the employee to better performance. You also want to show you are doing everything possible to coach the employee to better performance? How do you do that? Start by getting at the root cause of the difficult employee’s poor performance.

     Make the employee aware of whatever the issue is and offer support. For instance, you can recommend your Employee Assistance Program if you have one, or some other type of outside counseling. Be empathetic and let them know you are there to support them. At this point, they’re more likely to confide the problem and from there you can focus on the solution.

     If the poor performance is related to skill or knowledge, provide additional training. You don’t have to do the training yourself. This could be cross-training or it could consist of sending them to a seminar, or both.

In Managing Difficult People, Document, Document, Document 

     Documentation isn’t anything new, but many managers confide to me privately that they don’t document simply because they don’t have the time. Please, in managing difficult people you must do the documentation. Document the good stuff, too. This demonstrates you’re fair and objective.  If necessary, you may have to resort to progressive disciplinary action such as issuing a verbal warning. Depending on the severity of the situation you may even start with a written warning, but most likely the first write-up will be verbal. This can be an effective method for motivating what I call the “just-there-to-collect-a-paycheck employee.”

     What if you’re at the end of your ropes and nothing has worked? Sometimes you can do all the right things and it doesn’t work out because they’re not the right person for the job. They’re not a bad person. They’re just not a good fit. Usually, I find that the difficult employee is not someone you hired but someone you inherited.

More tips on managing difficult people will be forthcoming. Good luck!


Colleen Kettenhofen is an international workplace employee and management expert, corporate trainer and  conference keynote speaker. She has delivered more than 1,100 keynotes and seminars in 48 states and five foreign countries for top corporations and associations. A media veteran, she has appeared on numerous radio shows around the country and has written more than 40 articles on diverse workplace issues. Colleen is the author of 10 audio programs and two books including Secrets Your Boss Isn’t Telling You.