How to Deal With Difficult Employees and Their Disruptive Behavior

CoachHub · 29 November 2022 · 6 min read

Although the economy is showing signs of an impending inflation, job growth isn’t slowing down. It’s still an employee’s market.

Plus, on the heels of the so-called “Great Resignation,” the new trend appears to be something known as “Quiet Quitting.” This new term refers to employees who don’t resign. Instead, they stop trying and do the absolute minimum.

For example, you may be a manager who’s faced with an employee whose performance decreased significantly. They used to love their job. They were your number one employee. They were always on time, stayed late, offered proactive solutions to problems and performed jobs outside of their job description.

But lately, they are always late and rarely volunteer any new ideas. Worse, they complain to any colleague who will listen.

And now, many employees on the same team are exhibiting the same type of behavior. As their boss, what do you do? How do you deal with difficult employees like the one in our example?

In this article, we’ll go over the impact difficult employee have on everyone in an organization and how to manage them. Keep reading to learn more.

Difficult employees affect your entire workforce

Believe it or not, toxic employees and their negative attitude are contagious. When you have an employee who is venting to all their teammates, at least half of them could start complaining too. Moreover, colleagues who aren’t complaining might begin to show signs of burnout or anxiety.

Conversely, perhaps there is something wrong and the difficult employee isn’t toxic. Instead, they’re merely voicing what everyone else is afraid to say out loud.

Is toxic leadership to blame for difficult employees acting out?

Toxic leadership will adversely impact the entire company culture. A study from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) asked a sampling of employees at various companies to rate their manager performance in multiple areas.

People surveyed scored their manager’s concern for their subordinates and their skill at getting results. They also asked the same group to score their organization’s culture based on how well employees were willing to go above and beyond their job descriptions.

The HBR research discovered that just 20% of the workforce under poorly scoring leadership were willing to “go the extra mile” and 14% fell into the “quiet quitting category.” However, the same research found that highly rated leadership meant over 60% of employees went outside of the scope of their jobs while only 3% had checked out.

Perhaps it’s your management style that’s difficult and your difficult employees are just a symptom of the problem, not the cause. Or maybe, you are a great manager and something else is behind a toxic employee’s disruptive behavior.

Regardless, you need to nip the problem in the bud before it blooms out of control. Your team’s negativity and quiet quitting could result in an uptick in your turnover. Furthermore, if your difficult employees are the ones who used to be your high-flyers, you don’t want to lose your formerly best and brightest employees.

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Dig deeper and find out what’s really going on

Before you jump to conclusions or just fire a difficult employee, take them aside and speak to them privately. Perhaps, there’s something you don’t know that you can help change the situation. If your staff member’s performance at work has altered for the worse, maybe something is going on in their personal life.

Did they just lose a family member? Are they having health problems they don’t want to discuss at work?

It’s often not appropriate for you to ask about personal or health issues directly, but maybe your human resources (HR) department can point a disruptive employee to a benefit or resource that could help.

Alternatively, an employee who’s acting out might have been nervous about expressing that a positive culture had turned negative. Perhaps, a policy change or rumor floating around the proverbial water cooler had upset them.

If your company is in the middle of a period of change management, it can be rough on your staff. The changes might be beyond your control, but how they’re communicated may not be.

Yet, if an employee tells you they don’t feel motivated anymore because their work isn’t recognized or their positive efforts to offer solutions and ideas aren’t heard, maybe the difficult employee is you.

What if the problem is your management style?

Management can be challenging, especially if you’ve just been promoted to a leadership position. How to deal with difficult employees as a new manager might seem daunting, particularly if you discover you might be partially responsible for their behavior.

For example, if a difficult employee used to be one of the top performers on the team you’re now managing, could their lack of motivation have started at the same time you took over?

In the previous section, we provided an example of how to handle a situation where a subordinate shares they no longer feel heard or recognized at work.

A pre-pandemic study and article from Achievers found the following four reasons for an employee’s disengaged attitude:

  • Relationships with managers
  • No recognition or clear career path
  • Executives ignore or fail to act on feedback
  • Poor compensation

As a new manager, you absolutely have the power to improve your relationships with the people under you. And you can start by providing regular feedback and encouragement to the people on your team.

While you can’t control the executive wing, you do have the power to influence them by sharing ideas and concerns from your own team.

You can also manage up by speaking to the company’s bottom line. According to the same Achiever’s repost, there’s evidence from Gallup, that employees’ lack of motivation costs businesses a significant amount of revenue – around $450 to $550 billion per year in lost productivity.

What if the problem isn’t related to company culture and leadership?

Once you’ve discovered why one of your employees has been “difficult,” you have a way forward. However, what if the problem wasn’t disengagement due to leadership issues?

Sometimes an employee is just a difficult person, or has problems outside of work. We found solutions for the latter. But what about the employee who is disruptive and after speaking with them, you can’t identify why, other than a behavior or training issue?

There are still solutions:

  • Meet privately and offer constructive feedback publicly. Give specific examples in your meetings and focus on behavior and not personality. Also, don’t ignore poor behavior that occurs with colleagues. 
  • Document everything. When setting out to change employee behavior, it’s important to document your communication, including meetings, emails and phone calls.
  • Create a plan. As part of the documentation process, create a behavior and/or training plan. HR professionals sometimes call this a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP).
  • Develop goals. Ensure that your employee’s PIP includes specific, achievable, measurable, relevant and timely goals – S.M.A.R.T. goals.
  • Be clear about consequences. As part of the plan for change, include clear consequences for what happens if a difficult employee’s behavior doesn’t improve, or they don’t meet the goals on their PIP. 

Maybe the consequence is termination, or perhaps you will provide a series of lesser consequences before taking the final step and removing them from the workplace.

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to speak negatively about the employee to other people on your team or within the company.

Resist the urge to call the disruptive staff member names or label them as “just toxic.” Focus on the behaviors, but don’t be afraid to fire an employee who behaves badly and who fails to improve.

Coaching can help you manage difficult employees

Whether your organization’s problems with disruptive employees stem from ineffective leadership or because you have one or two “bad apples” that are “poisoning the well” and spreading their negativity to others on the team, digital coaching can help. CoachHub has a variety of coaching programs for every level of the workforce from managers to employees.

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