Hell on Earth: How to handle difficult people
Gary Ashworth, chairman of InterQuest Group
First things first. There are some hopeless, irredeemable cases. If you’re stuck with racist, sexist, or violent people, get rid of them.
But let’s try to be constructive. After all, the difference between good companies and mediocre ones – because, broadly, we all tend to get the same mix of talent – is the sophistication with which we handle our difficult employees.
If you have awkward people, they can act like a virus. But with the right leadership, it is possible to disarm them and turn them into apostles.
It is vital to address the disrupters and de-motivators. Otherwise, it can be cancerous and corrosive. We all know that situation when you arrive at the office full of enthusiasm, only to be infected with other people’s lack of engagement with the company. There are difficult people around us; the challenge is to try to harness them…
Measure the soft stuff
How do people feel about their working environment? Are they having fun? Give regular feedback to tricky employees on how people above and below them feel about their performance. Often people don’t realise how destructive they are being.
Keep an eye on the signs
Troublesome people are like attention-seeking children. They get bored, become playful, then start being disruptive.
Praise in public, chastise in private
We British are really bad at patting people on the back. I honestly believe that if I’d praised people more, my company would have been more successful. Sometimes we even give people salary rises when we could have just offered a few encouraging words. People love praise. And it’s free.
What’s the problem?
We often try to fix the wrong things. Ask yourself why a person is being difficult. Then focus on that problem, not a different one. You might be trying to teach someone sales skills when the problem is they don’t believe in the product. Work on changing their belief, not on enhancing their sales ability.
Try lots, keep what works
It’s worth trying different techniques with difficult people. Not everything you try will work. Don’t worry. Some people will need flexibility; some will need structure. Fortunately, modern managers are getting better at dealing with people. But I believe that the carrot-and-stick approach is an outdated model.
Know your limits
Remember, people who are great at certain things are terrible at others. We spend years trying to fix personality traits, but frankly you can’t do much. Instead, concentrate on what people do well and encourage them to do more. The salesman who is dreadful at administration is probably never going to get good at it, however many beatings or verbal warnings you give him.
What is generally out there in the workplace is not best practice. There are a lot of companies that are way behind the good ones in integrity and business practice. One of our clients was a direct sales business. One day, its turnaround guru stood on a desk and said, “We’re having a competition. The competition is to sell X units each month. The winners keep their jobs.” Sometimes you've just got to give up.
Balance your team
Assemble a collection of players with different assets – doers, dreamers, optimists, soothsayers and moderators.
Don’t get angry
I don’t think there is a place for a good old-fashioned rollocking any more. If you’re measuring – and people understand and agree performance standards – it soon becomes clear if people aren’t meeting expectations. Then you can act.
If someone has had a blow-out with another member of staff, let them have the day off to calm down. Then try to talk it through. This isn’t a soft option; in fact, it’s more difficult. It’s easy to shout; you just raise your voice and it has an instant impact. But I doubt it’s long-lasting.
What about you?
Most of us can remember times in our working life when we’ve been troublesome employees. Remember the jobs that you left because you weren’t managed properly?
All companies need behavioural standards. But the best way to deal with people is to isolate the problem, work with them to correct it and measure their progress. They get the rewards if they’re doing well; and can’t hide if they’re doing badly.
Remember, even the best-behaved house pet probably made a mess on the carpet as a puppy.