How to Manage Difficult Staff (2024)

The question of how to manage difficult staff can often be traced back to a pernicious problem in organizations: boredom. Improving employee engagement is often the key to resolving such issues.

By PON Staff — on / Dealing with Difficult People



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The question of how to manage difficult staff is a perennial one for managers. There are the employees who perform well but always seem to stir up conflict. Then there are those who do the bare minimum, just going through the motions. Or maybe you have problems with difficult staff who undermine your authority.

When it comes to managing difficult employees, there are rarely quick fixes. That’s in part because such issues often arise from a widespread workplace problem: employee boredom. Here’s a new perspective on the issue of how to manage difficult staff.

Why Boredom Might Be the Issue

About half of today’s workers are bored at their jobs, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports. How might that epidemic of boredom manifest? “Boredom leads to disengagement, and disengagement leads to lack of attention, missed opportunities, and mistakes,” writes leadership strategist Curt Steinhorst for Forbes. Boredom can also trigger conflict with coworkers and other problematic behaviors.

HR director Jennifer Diaz told the SHRM about an employee who was known around the office for avoiding work. “She found clever ways of deflecting her responsibilities and having those around her address them,” Diaz recalls. “For example, if a customer called, instead of taking care of his or her concern immediately, she asked the person to call back when she knew others would be around to follow up.”

When an employee is slacking off or acting out, we often attribute their poor performance to their overall personality, a cognitive bias that psychologist Lee Ross labeled the fundamental attribution error. Managers tend to respond by trying to more tightly control the employee’s behavior, whether by overseeing their work more closely or narrowing the scope of their responsibilities. But adding more constraints will only further annoy a bored or disengaged employee.

Trying to “power through” boring tasks isn’t a helpful strategy, either, according to research by Notre Dame University professor Casher Belinda and his colleagues. “Like whack-a-mole, downplaying boredom on one task results in attention and productivity deficits that bubble up during subsequent tasks,” says Belinda. “Paradoxically, then, trying to suppress boredom gives its harmful effects a longer shelf life.”

Nor is it the case that a bored employee just needs more to do. You can be overworked and overwhelmed and still be bored, after all. Rather, employees are bored “because their work lacks meaning,” writes Steinhorst, “and the typical human response to meaninglessness is to create distance or to resist.”

Get to Know Them Better

If you’re wondering how to manage difficult staff, that may be a sign that you need to work to improve their sense of engagement and investment. That should start with getting to know your employees better.

“Great managers are engaged with their people in a positive, supportive, mentor-like way, continually dispensing feedback, information, and encouragement,” according to Steinhorst. “They genuinely respect the individuals on their team, understand their strengths, and balance the work to take advantage of those strengths.”

Diaz took the time to get to know her problematic employee and learned that, perhaps not surprisingly, she was “quite miserable in her current role.” Diaz worked with the employee on setting career goals and an action plan for meeting them. “Her behavior toward others improved after she transitioned into a different position,” according to Diaz. “The employee ultimately became a go-to person in her department.”

“When you focus on finding the right fit between an employee’s strengths and the job she is asked to perform, success is almost guaranteed to follow,” says Diaz. She recommends offering employees coaching, giving them plenty of feedback, and celebrating their progress. “This will create a win-win situation for both the employees and the organization,” she says.

Increase Their Autonomy

In many cases, difficult employees would benefit from more control over their job. “Give everyone a share of work that involves untangling problems, solving puzzles, or having a say in what the department or company should consider as a next initiative (as well as a hand in researching/writing the proposal for it),” advises Steinhorst.

In addition, encouraging employees time to work on “side projects” on their own, as Google does, can pay off for both them and the organization, in terms of greater engagement and creative ideas. Providing opportunities to learn new skills through training and development programs is critical as well.

“When an employee takes initiative and gets personally invested in a task or project, they’re less likely to fall into the traps associated with boredom,” writes Michelle Bennett for the Niagara Institute. “As a leader, you should praise and encourage this type of behavior anytime you see it.”

In sum, the question of how to manage difficult staff often requires leaders to deepen their understanding of the frustrations workers may be experiencing on the job—including boredom—and take steps to address them.

What other advice would you have on how to manage difficult staff?

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How to Manage Difficult Staff (2024)

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