"Tracey’s Takeaways" is a regular feature that focuses on employee development, management issues, leadership and organizational culture.

Have you faced a situation with an employee who is exhibiting challenging behavior and/or a bad attitude? It's not easy dealing with "difficult" employees. But every day you wait, your cooperative's culture, employee morale and productivity are likely taking a hit. This article offers a few tips for how to identify and address such situations proactively.

First, recognize that there are many types of "difficult" employees: those who shirk their duties, resist change, withhold information, lose their temper and bad-mouth their peers for starters. I'm not talking here about truly "toxic" employees or those that are violating your policies or harassing others, but rather your garden-variety "difficult."

Here are four fictitious difficult employees. (Any resemblance to actual persons is unintentional!)

  • Grumpy Gus: Gus has been at the co-op for a long time and knows the history of all the decisions that have been made for the past three decades (and what was wrong with all of them). He is good at his job, but co-workers go out of their way to avoid one of his lectures.

  • Flip-the-Switch Phyllis: Phyllis has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing going on. One minute she's the model employee: cheerful, helpful and incredibly productive. The next she's lashing out over minor things. Her co-workers are on edge because they don't know which Phyllis is going to show up.

  • Ranting Robert: Robert tends to be argumentative and use harsh words. He always thinks he is right and seems to believe the louder he professes his views, the more convincing he is. Co-workers mostly try to tune him out.

  • Lazy Lisa: Lisa is a very pleasant person. She just doesn't appear to like to do much work. She is always running a few minutes late and has a knack for finding ways to get others to do her work for her.

Here are five things you can do that can be applied in any of the above situations:

  • Stay calm: The importance of this can't be overstated. This is likely to be a high emotion conversation for the employee and your job is to keep it professional. Take a deep breath, count to 10 or whatever you need to do to keep your composure. This is going to be particularly important with Phyllis and Robert, as their emotions could quickly escalate.

  • Be respectful: Don't assign intent to the employee's actions. Offer support and let the employee know that you want to help them come to a resolution. Gus' long tenure may not be engendering the respect he thinks he deserves. If that's the case, let him know his institutional knowledge is valued.

  • Listen closely: Your goal here is to listen to understand—what is at the root of this behavior I'm seeing? Resist the urge to make assumptions and jump to conclusions. While important for dealing with all the above employees, it may be particularly so for Phyllis. Her erratic behavior suggests she may be having trouble coping with something. That’s one possible explanation. Let this person know you care and want to help and she should be more likely to open up to you.

  • Stick to the facts: It's easy to color our language with our own emotions. For example: "You shoved the papers at me and then stormed out" rather than "You pushed the papers off the desk and left the room." Being factual includes informing the employee of the impacts of their behavior. Lisa needs to hear specific examples of when she has not met expectations. Robert needs to hear how his approach to persuading others is ineffective; you can point to facts such as his suggestion wasn't acted on, etc.

  • Focus on what's going to happen next: The past is the past. You can't change it. What you can try to change is how things go from this point forward. Let the employee know you want to work with them to solve this problem. Make sure your conversation concludes with a clear set of next steps. Schedule a follow-up meeting at which you will recognize improvements and/or address areas where progress is not being made.

Want more? The tips in this article align with the feedback and coaching model taught in NRECA's Supervisor and Management Development course Engaging and Developing High Performing Employees (713.1), and Everyone Communicates; Few Connect (711.1) covers a number of communication skills, including how to avoid jumping to conclusions and the types of questions to use for listening to understand.

Below are additional resources for more tips for handling difficult employees. Good luck!

Tracey Steiner is NRECA's senior vice president for education and training. Her 25-year career at NRECA has spanned a variety of roles starting in communications and marketing positions then 15 years as an attorney focusing on cooperative governance and public policy issues before moving to Education & Training in 2012.

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