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Whether they cause you severe stress or mere frustration, difficult employees are certainly a challenge. As they resist every request, question your direction, bring down the morale of the team, and impose their toxic comments in every meeting, your role as a leader hasn’t changed. It is your responsibility to lead them and that may mean taking actions different than what you might do naturally. Leading that difficult employee may mean you get to change a few things, examine habits, and break down one or two reasons behind their behavior. It’s not as hard as it sounds and can in fact, be broken down into a fairly simple step by step process.

Step 1: Identify What is Difficult

If there is a bit of history with this employee and they’ve acted in a way with which you struggle for quite some time, the problem can be hard to identify. But the truth is likely not what we all want to admit. They are difficult because you are not sure how to deal with their behavior. Take a step back. Look closely at their actions and start to identify three key elements: What do they do that bothers you? What are you expecting? What trigger might they be tripping?

Step 2: Find the Trigger

Emotional triggers have more power than perhaps we give them credit and difficult employees can push your buttons with the force of an elephant. But only if you let them. If you’ve not found the trigger their behavior keeps activating, now’s the time. Ask yourself: Do they remind you of someone? Are you taking their behavior personally?

Step 3: Clear the Air

Have a conversation with your difficult employee that outlines what you perceive to be happening. Avoid telling them what you believe are the reasons for their behavior and merely state that you realize the relationship has become difficult. Take responsibility for your portion of the equation by stating you realize the problem involves both of you and commit to moving forward differently, without focusing on the history. Ask them to do the same and talk until you have their steadfast agreement. This is an important step and one that may take more than one conversation if the employee has issues that need to be resolved before they feel they can move forward. Persist. Clearing the air is essential for progress.

Step 4: Process Feedback

When emotions are high due to a difficult relationship with boss and team member, taking things personally is a real possibility and not helpful to either party. Listen to what the employee said when you made an effort to clear the air. Listen in the way you would to someone reporting out a numerical transaction. Do not confuse fact with their opinion and remain objective. Their perceptions and opinions matter and are not necessarily accurate. Process what is said and before judging the employee for their competence or viewpoint, decide what you need to do to make the relationship workable.

Step 5: Take Immediate Action

Ideally, your actions would move you both toward a better relationship with more results related to this difficult employee’s position. All relationships are not ideal. What you may uncover is a need to discontinue working together, but in most cases, the way to make progress in a difficult employee relationship is to take immediate action in the direction of what needs to be changed. The faster you take action the faster you get feedback on what’s working and the level to which you are both committed to making changes.

All leaders at some point seem to have difficult employees. The degree of difficulty depends on the leader and there are times when an employee who is normally not difficult may get that way, but in all cases a leader has the responsibility to meet the employee where they are, at least at first. With these five steps and mutual commitment to look forward, instead of back, progress can be made and relationships can improve. Yes, sometimes that progress means determining the position or role is not a fit for one person or another, but much more often, the relationship is repaired and both leader and employee are able to move forward.

Monica Wofford, CSP is a leadership development specialist and professional speaker. Her books Contagious Leadership and Make Difficult People Disappear are requested internationally. CEO of  www.ContagiousCompanies.com, Monica is also a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives. She may be reached at 1-866-382-0121.

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