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Dealing with Difficult Employees: Strategies for Creating a Collaborative Workplace

In every workplace, navigating the complexities of human behaviour is essential for maintaining a productive and harmonious environment. When dealing with difficult employees, understanding their behaviours and addressing underlying issues can lead to positive outcomes for both the individual and the team as a whole.

Though there are many considerations when it comes to human behaviour in organizations, we have found that there are 3 areas to consider before determining how to proceed.


1. Understanding Behavioral Patterns


One of the first considerations when encountering someone who has been labeled as a “difficult employee” is to assess their behavioral patterns. Changes in performance or attitude could stem from personal issues, work-related stressors, or dissatisfaction.

Instead of immediately reacting, take time to observe and gather information about the situation. Is this behavior typical for the individual, or is it a recent development?

2. Evaluating the Impact of Change


Changes within the workplace, such as shifts in responsibilities, organizational restructuring, or interpersonal conflicts, can significantly affect employees. These changes may impact their autonomy, sense of trust, or relationships with colleagues, potentially leading to resistance or disengagement.

By understanding how recent changes have influenced the employees' behaviour, you can tailor your approach to address their concerns effectively.


Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout. – HBR


3. Considering Mental Health Factors


In today's workplaces, awareness of mental health issues is crucial. Behavioural changes or declines in performance could indicate underlying mental health challenges. It's essential to approach these situations with empathy and sensitivity, focusing on support rather than immediate disciplinary action. Encouraging open communication and offering resources for mental health support can create a more compassionate workplace culture.

Managers have more influence on employee mental health (69%) than doctors (51%) or therapists (41%), and the same level of impact as their spouses and partners. - HRM



What You Can Do About It


When faced with a difficult employee, proactive steps can help foster a collaborative and supportive environment:


Ask Questions and Seek Understanding


Collaboratively approach the employee. Ask open-ended questions to understand their perspective and the factors contributing to their behaviour. This approach shows empathy and can uncover root causes that need addressing.


Build Trust Through Appreciation


Recognition must go beyond general thanks and platitudes. Continued demonstration of appreciation for the value team members bring to the organization is essential to creating an engaged team. Acknowledge the contributions of team members and actively show appreciation for their efforts. Building trust through positive reinforcement can improve morale and motivation.


Reframe Your Perspectives


Instead of labelling a staff member as "difficult", seek to understand the specific behaviours or actions resulting in challenges. Look for ways to reframe these behaviours positively whenever possible. When this poses a challenge, find constructive ways to address specific areas of tension with a future-focused lens, highlighting mutually beneficial solutions.



While addressing difficult employees requires patience and empathy, it's also essential to assess whether there's a mutual path forward. Sometimes, despite efforts to support and understand, a parting of ways may be the best solution for both parties' well-being and the organization's overall harmony.


By focusing on understanding behavioural patterns, acknowledging the impact of change, and considering mental health factors, leaders can create a workplace where employees feel supported, valued, and motivated to contribute positively. This proactive approach not only improves individual outcomes but also strengthens the team dynamics and organizational culture as a whole.

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