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35 Vital Steps To Prepare For Conflict With A Difficult Employee

1. Consider Your Role In The Problem

Think about how you might have contributed to the problem. Ask yourself if there is something you could have done differently that would have helped the situation. The worst leads lack self-awareness or refuse to confront their blind spots. Confront yourself before you confront a difficult employee.

2. Develop A Plan

Develop a plan by thinking of what needs to be done. Write down the steps and set goals to reach them. Be organized, take action, and make sure you stay on track with your plan. If you're not sure where to start, read my book Step Up or Step Out to discover a system for dealing with difficult employees that really works, even if you hate conflict.

3. Identify Behaviour Problems

The quickest way to a massive confrontation where everyone loses is to have a big one-off battle with the difficult employee where you use generalizations like, "For the past few years, you've..." Or "You always...". We tend to use generalizations when we haven't through through specific behaviours. This is why 'clear and early' is the key to dealing with a difficult employee.

4. Be Proactive

When dealing with difficult employees, it is important to be proactive. This means taking the initiative to find out why the employee is acting a certain way and how you can help them. Listen carefully and try to understand their perspective so you can work together to solve any issues. As mentioned above, be 'clear and early' with your feedback rather than 'vague and late' like we so often are.

5. Be Willing To Do Hard Things

My favourite leadership quote of all time is Patrick Lencioni: "Building a healthy team is both possible and remarkably simple. But it's painfully difficult." To deal with difficult employees in your team and organization, it's simple and possible but it's not going to be easy. Prepare yourself to do hard things. I find it helpful (as horrible as it sounds) to expect some people will hate you. If you can't deal with that, then you may struggle as a leader.

6. Conduct Investigations Where Cecessary

Some difficult behaviour can be dealt with adhoc. However, there are some circumstances where you will need to conduct an investigation and then discuss your findings with the employee. In these cases you'll also need to give them an opportunity to put their case forward.

7. Consult With The HR Team

Talk to the HR team for help in solving difficult employee issues. They can give advice on how to handle the problem and what steps to take. This is always a good idea but when the behaviour is serious or potentially warrants termination this will also save your backside legally. Not only because of the advice you receive but because of what you don't do once you've discussed with HR.

8. Work Through Your Company’s Processes

It is important to follow the rules and steps that your company has set. This will help make sure everything is done in the right way. I'm all for clear expectations, picking small battles and no surprises, but I'm equally aware of legal implications. Seek legal advice when needed, engage with your HR department or consider a HR consultant and make sure you. have company processes in place that are clear and that you're following them.

9. Understand The Bigger Picture

Understand the whole situation. Think about why it is happening and what else could be affected. This is a helpful mindset for every leader. But it can also give you 'aha' moments about ripple effects of dealing with this difficult employee you might not have considered otherwise.

10. Address The Root Cause Of The Behaviour Directly

When someone does something wrong, try to figure out why they did it and talk to them about it. Try to fix the problem so it won't happen again. Stop and ask yourself, "What's the symptom here? And what's the root cause?" Sometimes we have to start by addressing symptoms, but for long-term success prepare by identifying the root cause where possible.

11. Take People Development To The Next Level

Before you confront any employees, ask yourself how well your team and organization develops people? This whole process is about expectations. It's unfair to have expectations that aren't backed by resources and support.

12. Create A Favorable Environment For Feedback.

To create a good environment for giving feedback, make sure people feel comfortable talking honestly and openly. Encourage everyone to listen carefully and respect each other's opinions. Give people the chance to explain their ideas. Ask yourself, "How well do I handle constructive feedback from my team?" You will be the ceiling for vulnerability in your team. If you're the CEO, you will be the ceiling for culture in your organization. So work on yourself to build a higher ceiling.

13. Discuss Openly How to Manage Poor Behaviour

Toxic behaviour thrives in the dark. Does your culture openly manage poor behaviour? Most don't. Look at high-performance sports teams, great players aren't afraid to call each other on where they can improve in the middle of a game. That's the culture you want to create in your team and organization. If you achieve this, toxic employees won't be able to handle the light on them and they'll change their behaviour or leave.

14. Be Fair and Unbiased

Be fair and treat everyone the same. Do not show favoritism or make decisions based on personal opinions. Listen to everyone's ideas and respect their opinions. Make sure that all rules apply equally to everyone. Ask yourself, "Is anyone else engaging in the same behaviour as this difficult employee? If so, how have I dealt with them?" Take it to another level by asking yourself, "Have I engaged in behaviour like this in the past? Do I behave similarly now?" If you're unfair, expect a horrible process. People hate injustice.

15. Support Growth By Empowering Individuals

Helping people in your organization grow and do their best work is important. Give them the freedom to make decisions and learn from them. Encourage them to try new ideas and use their skills. Great leaders don't create followers, they create leaders.

16. Accept That Some People Won't Change

As you prepare to confront a difficult employee, make this your mantra, "I can't wake them up." I learnt this from Australian counsellor Peter Janetzki and it's so true. There's a chance they won't 'wake up'. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow and maybe never. You can't wake them up. All you can do is communicate clearly and early and then hold them accountable.

17. Act Quickly

When dealing with difficult employees, you must act quickly. Make sure to follow the company procedures and be fair and respectful. Give people time to improve, but take action if needed. Once again, 'clear and early' is the best way to deal with a difficult employee.

18. Don't Act Before Getting The Facts

Sometimes we're ready to jump in and confront someone when we should really be in a listening posture. Before making any decisions, make sure you have all the facts. Gather information and ask questions to make sure you know what is going on before taking action.

19. Look Out For Bad Attitude

A bad attitude is when someone has a negative outlook or shows disrespect. They might be grumpy, rude, or uncooperative. It can make it hard to work or get along with them. Don't ignore bad attitudes. You can confront these by making attitude one of the clear expectations in your team and organization and then picking small battles when you see a bad attitude rear its head.

20. Document The Details of the Situation

It is important to write down the facts of a situation. Make sure to include who was involved, what happened and when it happened. Writing this information down will help you remember all the details later on. This process is also helpful for your mindset as you'll comb through the details and potentially have revelations as you write things down.

21. Document the Problematic Behavior

Focus on documenting problematic behaviour in particular. Some people rub us the wrong way but we feel unclear about how to articulate what they have or haven't actually been doing. If you're considering confronting a difficult employee, start documenting for yourself their problematic behaviour to give yourself a bird's eye view of the situation.

22. Raise Issues ASAP

Don't put off the necessary conversations for a later date. As you'll see, there's an expectations conversation you can have with a difficult employee that is much easier than an accountability conversation. The longer you put off the conversations, the bigger the likely conflict when you eventually go there.

23. Pre-plan to Prevent

Pre-planning helps you think ahead and stop problems before they start. It's like making a plan so that you know what to do in certain situations. You can use pre-planning to make sure everything goes smoothly. Start pre-planning now if you're starting to get a bit concerned about an employee's behaviour.

24. Plan Ahead

Planning ahead means thinking about what you need to do before you do it. It helps you remember things and stay organized. Too often we confront employees when we're 'fed up'. This almost always backfires for everyone involved. Instead, sit back and plan ahead for days, weeks, months and years to think strategically about 'raising the water level' in your team and organization.

25. Monitor The Behavior

This sounds obvious, but where there are behavioural issues, get yourself as close as possible if you're the one responsible for dealing with any difficult behaviour. Keep an eye on how people are acting. Watch to make sure they are following the rules and doing what they should be doing. Keep track of their progress and make sure they are meeting their goals. Don't micromanage. Use the method many boards use for governance, "Nose in, fingers out."

26. Listen To Your Employees

When did you last run an employee survey? What score would you give yourself out of 100 for listening to your team? Most leaders can improve by simply active listening at a higher level. Before you start dealing with difficult employees, do a self-audit on your listening and commit to take it to another level (and to actually find out from independent anonymous data how 'heard' your people feel).

27. Lead by Example and Define Company Culture

Good news and bad news. Good news is, you have an enormous effect on behaviour in your team and organizational culture! Bad news, you have an enormous effect on behaviour in your team and organizational culture. You are the ceiling. Leaders who call others to behaviour higher than their own simply do not succeed. Your best people will not put up with it and will leave. You'll be left with only those whose behaviour is lower than yours. And they'll stay forever.

28. Identify the Worker’s Positive Attributes.

Before confronting anyone, do an audit of their positive attributes. This means noticing what they do well and praising them for it. Ask questions and listen to their opinion so you can understand why they are doing something and help them do better.

29. Have An Open Mind

How well do you handle being wrong? When was the last time you said to your team or organization, "Sorry everyone, I was wrong"? If you're going to deal well with difficult employees, you need to have an open mind. Embrace the fact you may be wrong and there may be crucial information - a 'black swan' as it's sometimes called - that you don't yet know.

30. Encourage More Work From Home Flexibility

Encourage people to work from home more. This means they can do their job without having to go into the office. It helps them save time and energy, so they can be more productive. I mention this here because in today's work climate this can truly be a factor in disgruntled employees. Consider your company's flexibility and how that might improve behaviour.

31. Encourage Problem-Solving

Encourage finding solutions to problems. Talk about the problem and try to work together on finding a solution. Listen to each other's ideas and be respectful. It's ok to make mistakes, but find ways of solving them too. Don't create a culture of baby birds where worms have to be spoon fed. But also don't fall victim to being an absent leader. You need to be present and create a can-do problem-solving culture. This will help your team to confront difficult behaviours in their colleagues.

32. Ensure Employee Goals Are Meaningful.

Do your employees' goals make sense? Are they important and linked to the purpose and strengths of each employee? Do you even have goals for them? Sometimes difficult behaviour grows when there's a lack of direction and motivation. Give them tasks they can do that will help their work, and give them a chance to reach their goals. Show that you care by helping them understand why these goals are important.

33. Get Your Difficult Employee’s Feedback Before Going Public

When the difficult behaviour needs to be brought up publicly for some reason, talk to your difficult employee first and get their opinion. Blindsiding people because the conversation was just going to be too tricky is a formula for disaster. Ask them questions about the issue and listen to what they have to say. This helps you find a solution that works for everybody.

34. Get The Skills and Savvy You Need to Become An Effective Leader

Why are you dealing with a difficult employee? Be brutally honest with yourself. How can you expect them to grow and embrace change if you're not willing to do the same? Get a coach, ask someone to be a mentor, engage a peer group who will hold you accountable and become the best leader you can be.

35. Expectations, Expectations, Expectations

How clear are you on the expectations you have for this employee? How clear are they? Unclear expectations is the shortcut to terrible conflict with difficult employees. Before you do anything, sit down and review the expectations and look for any gaps. Then prepare yourself to have an expectations conversation with that employee to find out what it looks like from their perspective.

Are you preparing for conflict with a difficult employee, right now?

In my opinion, this is one of the most challenging things to do well in leadership.

Well done on having the courage to prepare to 'go there'!

Download my eBook Step Up or Step Out and start reading straight away.

In the book, I unpack my system for dealing with difficult people that really works, even if you hate conflict.

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