How to Deal with Difficult Employees: 5 Steps

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 7th December 2015

How to deal with difficult employees is an increasingly popular question. Perhaps this is a reflection of the growing levels of pressure and stress in today’s workplace. Perhaps it also reveals a lack of training and support, leaving many feeling out of their depth when dealing with complex people issues at work.

Whatever the cause, it can be tough to tackle, so here are some tips for dealing with difficult employees. They’re designed to prompt reflection and prepare you to move forward positively when faced with such situations as a leader and manager.

1. Identify the specific issues

Many factors can lead to someone being seen as ‘difficult’. It could be their behaviour, a difference in interpretation of the role, a clash of values or personalities, or even personal history and relationships.

It’s important to be clear about the realities. How you both feel about the situation is important, but this needs to be considered separately from an awareness of the facts.

2. Look at the real root causes

These situations can become emotionally draining and disproportionate. It’s wise to stand back from the issue to think about the factors that have brought you to this point.

The majority (though not all) of the situations where a colleague has been identified as ‘difficult’ are the result of contextual factors. Professional and personal context and the expectations and attitudes of all parties can all be hugely significant in causing someone to behave in ways deemed challenging.

Whatever the catalyst for the current situation, it rarely arises in isolation, and is probably influenced by numerous factors. So ensure you have a clear understanding of the real causes before deciding on what actions to take.

3. It’s always about both of you

When faced with this situation, blaming it all on the other person is an easy option, but rarely a helpful one. While it may not be, as my grandmother would say, ‘a six and two threes’, where both are equally implicated, it may at least be a four and a two, rather than a six and a nought.

Be honest with yourself. Is it really all about them? If not, think about where you might be implicated.

4. Agree a compromise

In essence, resolving such a situation is actually a process of negotiation to reach a compromise and find a way forward that is acceptable to both parties.

Start with the common ground. What is it that you agree on? Start from there to reach an acceptable compromise. What are you prepared to let go, and what is absolutely sacrosanct?

Once you deal with the situation in these terms, you take some of the emotional ‘cloudiness’ out of it.

5. Use conflict to your advantage

Some degree of conflict in a team can be productive. High-performing teams are rarely bland, pleasant, easy-going places. Instead, there is usually passion and strong opinion.

People in high-performing teams will usually defend their positions and argue strongly for their opinions to be accepted. A strong working relationship does not require you to be in complete agreement, and conflict that challenges the status quo can be very beneficial, leading to re-evaluation of norms, open debate and innovative answers.

The key is to focus on the future and on the most important outcomes and values you both subscribe to. You need to find a way forward for the greater good.

In summary

Very few people are born difficult. We just respond to stimuli in different ways, according to our personalities, beliefs, attitudes and values, and these responses don’t always match up with those of others.

Issues with difficult employees need to be considered as the result of a wide range of factors, and all parties need to accept some responsibility. This isn’t about ‘winning’ or getting your way, but about meeting overarching shared goals in the best way possible.

The ability to deal with difficult situations is part of being an effective manager or leader. To learn how you can develop your leadership and management abilities through expert mentoring and support, get in touch below.

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