The Difficult Employee – It Is Them

The difficult employee – is it their intent to be difficult? As leaders we know employees push our buttons and the buttons of others on our team including our boss. We are on point to “fix” this or everyone looks at us as not fully competent to prune the trees and keep the garden of our success looking good. We tend to either go into attack mode or evade mode. We are not sure what to do, and whatever we have done hasn’t seemed to work; it has only increased the level of frustration for everyone.

Many of us got into people leadership in order to teach, help, support, guide and motivate others. And through their success they love us, and we proudly strut around celebrating their success. Not with this employee. This employee is where we earn our keep.

Preface:  Before we fix them, we have to start with us and changing our thinking. We get so “amped-up” thinking and dealing with the difficult employee that we begin to blame the employee. Instead of sleeping, we’re laying awake thinking about this difficult situation, and that makes us mad. We don’t like interacting with this person, and when we do, it’s just awkward.

Step 1: We need to pinpoint the tasks that they are not doing. Focus on the task and that helps us not paint the whole person in a negative light. Focus on “what” is calming, or the “who” is maddening. The who is bigger than our training, skills or role.


Ask ourselves, as if we were this employee, “How would this affect me?” We see behaviors of coasting, near-retirement-but-won’t retire, how do I do the least work for the most pay, and wonder what is really going on for them? Are they losing sleep? Beyond motivations and coaching we need to fully investigate, and remember the perspective from others including HR, and maybe even medical personnel. The difficult employee may need medical help. So, as abstracted here from Business Management daily, here are 3 major types and possible ideas to help improve the situation.


Maybe we mis-hired, or someone before us, mis-hired. They are not living up to their potential. In most cases underachievement is more attitude than ability.  This is not always the case and we have to ask ourselves, have I observed them perform the task? I had a manger prepared to terminate her employee for horrible administrative skills. I asked her “have you actually watched them do an expense report?” Er….no. Turns out the employee was too embarrassed to ask for help with organizing and executing an expense report and was mentally preparing to be let go instead of admitting they just didn’t have rudimentary organizational skills. Whoa! That problem got easily resolved. Most often they lack the attitude or perspective to understand why some tasks need to be done at all.


  1. Build their self-esteem – even to a higher extent than what others need, since they may need way more.
  2. Cross-train, with intent to identify other skills
  3. Surround them in work involving others to further establish proper norms of behavior
  4. Provide more disciple and structure – let them know someone is watching.

Power Players

Power players may see the world as black and white or me vs. them. The two main types are either neurotics or narcissists. They may be “I’m OK, you are not OK.”

I had an employee one time get very upset in my office, telling me that she was mad at her manager. So, I met with the manager, as both he and this employee were good performers, and I knew they were in conflict a lot more than was appropriate. The manager defended his actions with this employee as, “I’m just being honest with her” and I said “Yes, and you are also being rude.” Both were true statements. The employee needed performance coaching, and this manager was being way too direct.


  1. Have the facts on your side.
  2. Control the meeting agenda, time and attendee count so the power player is unable to dominate topics, room position or begin arguments.
  3. Create project work the power player must complete with someone with skills the power players needs to complete the task.
  4. Speak slowly and ask questions, allowing fewer statements. Body language needs to reflect confidence.

Butt Kissers

This group is self-centered, and less able to sympathize with the motivations and feelings of others. They don’t get angry – they over-use humor. Ugh! They say one thing and do another. Like a whack-a-mole game, we press on specific areas to improve, and they improve from bad to simply not-great. And then something else pops up, or not-great slides back into bad again. Years ago I got so upset with my son, after 10 times asking him to help with laundry, that finally he packed the washer so full, water ran everywhere and nothing got cleaned. Welcome to passive-aggressive… I felt like he was saying there you go dad.


  1. Don’t get angry– that is their goal not ours.
  2. Point out the poor behavior and get their ideas to improve the outcome.
  3. Don’t accept excuses or take the dependent role.  Here is where we can’t be the people pleaser.
  4. Try silence – and softly ask questions.

We can’t leave out the control freaks, perfectionists, and posers. I recall my friend Nate McCutcheon, asking his team, are we Running for Office, Running for Cover or Running the Business. As we want success in business and home life, the characters above surface both in the mirror as well as in our difficult employees

What we tolerate is what we promote.


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