How to Manage Difficult People in Your Team

One of the biggest problems new managers face is juggling team management with other responsibilities. According to an analysis by the Center for Creative Leadership, about 68% of new managers struggle with this problem.

In team management, managers mainly deal with managing difficult people and challenges involving underperformers, skills mismatch, slackers, and workplace conflicts.

Although workplace conflicts resulting in confrontations are quite common in most companies, not all managers are adequately trained in handling such problems. This is particularly true for the 60% of new managers who have claimed that they never received any form of training in transitioning into their first role as a leader.

Most managers opt to face confrontations by staying optimistic. However, in reality, the more you keep scaling, the more you keep growing, the more you are going to start facing more of these conflicts along with challenges in dealing with clients, partners, vendors, and so on. 

That is largely the reason why most organizations out there are implementing strict employment protocols. The earlier you ward off potential employees, the easier it will be.

So, if you are a new manager or a new business leader and you are currently or constantly dealing with problematic employees or struggling over confrontations with difficult people, here are some tips to help you out.

9 Tips to Manage Difficult Employees

1. Review Expectations

Here is a simple truth that most people often forget: a job is a job. 

A job comes with tasks description, requirements, and expectations. Those expectations have to be met, which is why it is critical to lay these expectations down at the onset of employment so that the employees would do their part of the job. 

If they want to be retained for a longer period of time or be up for promotion, they not only have to cover the very bare minimum for survival and staying employed, but they also have to put in something extra which can make them stand out.

Nevertheless, employees are expected to deliver the type of work that they are supposed to be doing. Review these expectations set during confrontations with the difficult people in your team.

2. Manage Velocity

Now for some, a job is a job; and for others, the job is a career.

If an employee treats his job as nothing more than a source of income, then you can expect that they only cover the bare necessities or the bare minimum of the job description just to stay employed. That is becoming a common problem as it implies a lack of motivation.

Some organizations in the US have started experimenting with different types of rules like firing the bottom 10% of their staff to get rid of the weakest link because “An army is only as powerful as its weakest soldier.” 

It is pretty much the same thing in business. So managing velocity is important because velocity is the grouped type of value or progress that the organization, the department, and the team can deliver to the outside world.

Setting Work Expectations

And if we manage velocity through 1-10 scale, let’s say that we have a team of five people, four people with a velocity of eight which turns into one person with the velocity of four or a velocity of three. It basically means that your total velocity is around seven or so, or six and a half even simply because of one person who is under performing. While the other folks who were extremely laser focused and working hard and whatnot, the entire team’s velocity is brought down by this single individual that is barely working at all.

So again, when you are having an uncomfortable conversation, sometimes it is due to the fact that the overall velocity is brought down by a specific individual. And again you have to understand that this is a job, and the team should move forward, be profitable, and should deliver value to meet the company’s expectations. If someone is jeopardizing this, you need to have a pep talk.

I’m not saying you need to fire them on the spot but you definitely have to communicate to them. And if necessary, warn them once or twice, and put them on a Performance Improvement Plan

Communicate these sanctions and as much as possible, provide them opportunities to get better before it is too late. 

3. Ensure Alignment

Ensure alignment between the individual and the job description. Sometimes, you have a great fit—someone who is a great talent but is an underperformer at their specific job. 

So one question that you may want to ask is, “Have we hired this person for the right job?” Maybe this person is a better fit for a different type of job, for a different department, or for a different skill set. Depending on their expectations or their strong suit, you can pick the right types of activities that match the specific individual. Consequently, this will lead him to think of his job as his potential career. 

Because let’s face it, people who aim for a career, and who really enjoy their jobs, are going to be more motivated. They are going to spend more time and more resources. And once they become invested, it will change the conversation.

Impact of Mishandled Conflicts

4. Evaluate Return On Investment

Return On Investment (ROI) is what I usually discuss with people who are not performing well, or even with vendors and partners. 

You want to have a positive and as high as possible ROI from every single individual of the organization or at least, your department. So, you expect to pay a certain amount of money for salaries, advertisement through taxes, sales, or sponsorships, and then have a net profit which must exceed all of your expenses and basically be profitable. The goal is to be safely profitable, not just barely making a living out of the business.

And of course, this means that every single individual for the most part has to earn their pay one way or another, right?

This is applicable to any type of job. Some are revenue-generating like sales, and several others that are crucial for the business such as: for a website development company, developers; for an accounting firm, these are accountants. There are also some necessary roles for most businesses such as legal, accounting, finances, other operation jobs like cleaning services, and whatnot. 

The better an employee is in a category, the more valuable an employee becomes. 

It is only right to evaluate the efficiency of your investments in people, whether one meets the expected ROI or not. If a specific individual fails to meet the expected ROI at a certain percentage, then there could be a problem with their salary, performance, or productivity. As the manager, you need to examine these metrics.

Categories may overlap so there are nuances in measuring ROI but basically, business relies on generating revenue and saving expenses by preventing damages.

Depending on the problematic aspect, you may have different conversations with your people. The bottom line is that in business, look at everything through a professional, not a personal lens.

Effectively manage difficult people by being ready to call out and confront misbehavior or poor performance and ensure clarity in your conversations. Above all, your decisions as to whether an employee stays or not should be data-driven.

5. Value Results

Sometimes, managers nitpick for no valid reason. In other cases, there are really unacceptable behaviors that require confrontation.

However, if you fire someone who is producing real and massive results just because they are always late in coming to work, the repercussions could be detrimental to your business. 

Are your other staff members as brilliant and productive as him?

If not, cut him some slack and let him do his magic. Again, at the end of the day, it’s all about Return on Investment. If he manages to generate 5 times the workload of his fellow colleagues in 4 hours a day, you may as well trim his working hours even further.

This may very well motivate everyone else to start working smart and generate results.

The only reason you would reward presence over results is a support/call center type of role that requires availability due to incoming calls, tickets, or emails. Otherwise, make sure you nurture his talent and inspire everyone else on your team through his accomplishments.

Managing Employees

6. Handle Resistance

Resistance is almost inevitable especially when you introduce a change in policy or new workflows. Whenever possible, consider working closely with those who struggle in keeping up with the changes.

Employees often expect that the workflows are straightforward—a natural defense mechanism inherent in a lot of us. When confronting a difficult employee over his resistance to policy changes, consider the following tips:

  • Clearly outline the benefits of the new policy
  • Lay down the negative implications and consequences of the old process
  • Identify those who would be affected by the change
  • Ask about the individual’s issues with the new process
  • Consult others in the same department
  • Stress on the importance of the policy changes

Stressing on the long-term opportunities of being open to new policies can help ease the challenges in dealing with the team as a whole.

7. Maintain Professionalism

Some managers take the aggressive route in confrontations but I wouldn’t suggest you head this way.

Managers are in charge of leading the strategy and finding the right path to accomplishing the company goals and keeping the team spirit together at the same time. This is why as you manage difficult people, it is always crucial to stay professional in your communications and discussions.

Introducing conflicts to the company communication would alienate some employees and lead to worse internal conflicts, gossip, and a lot of extra stress which would affect the company morale.

I would much rather strive for authority based on respect—conveying the level of trust to your team that corresponds to the company goals, and ensuring that your management strategy is protecting the team’s interest. 

The more professional you are as a manager, the better you are, the more profitable the company is, and the more respected the team would be.

Managing Performance

8. Focus On Organizational Goals

One of the crucial questions to answer as a manager is: Who do you serve?

Most people would pick getting promoted to senior management or increasing cash. While others could also be struggling to gain the approval of the following:

  • The upper management
  • The direct superior
  • Fellow staff members
  • Investors or clients
  • Partners and peers

You cannot please everyone, so your people need to focus on your main objectives and that is to contribute to the success of the organization, and not the individual interests.

Discuss the priorities of your employees and check whether you are all after what is best for the company. Sometimes, all it takes is getting them back to what truly matters at the end of the day.

9. Stick to the Defined Terms

Most companies define some sort of a “Core Philosophy” that covers the main goals and beliefs of the team as a community. Different units may have different personalities and temperaments which is fine as long as they are in line with the core principles of the company.

Similarly, eCommerce stores have “Terms of Service” that outline the deal and set the right tone accordingly.

Having differences with your subordinates is more than normal. Innovation and creativity are often born this way. If managed right, there can be a lot of room for growth with productive discussions.

What matters here is working in the same direction.

Depending on your contract or agreement (within your company or with your clients), sticking to the terms and the core pillars would solve the majority of the problems. Conflicts may arise for different reasons—lack of adherence to productive etiquette, disagreement in future goals, or being picky regarding grammar or code quality. 

Finding common ground and trying to sort out the pressure is absolutely required.

Sticking to a respectful tone and justifying requirements in a productive manner would allow for a good discussion and often lead to an agreement. If someone is too stubborn or there occurs a massive gap between both approaches, consider meeting in the middle. Once all means have been exhausted, terminate the relationship ending on good terms and handle the leave seamlessly.

Resolving Conflicts

Managers leading large teams need to always bounce between day-to-day activities and targets with team members and global organizational responsibilities.

Exceptional time management is crucial for efficient resource allocation. Strong communication and interpersonal skills are important for engaging with diverse stakeholders.

Adaptability and flexibility are critical to navigating changing priorities. Strategic mindset allows managers to maintain a broader perspective while remaining grounded in the daily realities of their team’s work.

You are expected to create a roadmap over the next 6 months but still, find time to support a junior manager in a specific project. In managing difficult people, jumping between coordinating project budgeting and resource allocation with handling a regression or scope creep can be very draining. Add to that the need to fight fires every now and then with the different office commotions. 

Just never take for granted any opportunity to turn a situation around and de-escalate conflicts. The way you manage difficult people in your team can have a massive impact on the entire organization. 

It is easy to run a business or manage a team when the company is profitable and everyone is accountable. But, work is not always rainbows and unicorns. External and internal disruptions require balance and nurturing every now and then. 

Yes, tough conversations at work can be very intimidating for all parties involved.

What essentially helps is understanding the nature of business and reminding everyone what they have signed up for.

Things can end up on a positive note or get resolved through a number of different management techniques other than the ones mentioned above.

What was your most recent confrontation or misalignment at work that you had to deal with? 

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