Ideally, when you’re leading or working with a team, you have a group of people who work in good faith to get the job done well—and get along while doing so. Then, there are those folks who are just miserable. Perhaps they’re cynical or sarcastic. They may be negative, unreliable, or gossipy. Sometimes, they’re even worse—engaging in backstabbing or trying to undermine your authority.
Of course, you’re not going to get along with everyone at the office, but if you’re a leader, you’re in a position to take action to mitigate the damage these dismal souls can do, says Elizabeth Holloway, PhD, professor at Antioch University’s PhD Program in Leadership & Change and coauthor of Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power. As you begin to use your authority to deal with your challenging team members, there are some helpful steps you can take.
Some people are unpleasant and some damage the organization, says Michael J. Beck, founder of Michael Beck International, a Portland, Oregon-based performance consulting and employee engagement firm. Try to get to the bottom of why your employee is acting out. Is he or she dissatisfied with the work or the company? Is there an issue going on at home? Beck says asking good questions and observing the employee in action can give you some insight into whether you’re dealing with a difficult personality or another issue that can be fixed.
Personality tests like the DiSC profile can be useful in gaining insight into your workers, their preferences, and how they like to communicate, says Gerald Bricker, principal of Aadvise Consulting, a business coaching firm in Northville, Michigan. Such insight can be difficult for people to articulate, and these tests can give you a bit of insight that might otherwise be hard to obtain, he says. There is also a body of research and writing about how to manage different personality types, he adds.
If there’s a clear understanding of that person, what their makeup is, and how best to communicate with them, that will go a long way toward helping to overcome those challenges, he says.
Sometimes, simply calling out the fact that you and your colleague have different approaches can be enough to defuse the tension, Beck says. Say something like, “Boy, we really have different styles, but let’s see how we can work through this.” That way, you’re not delivering negative criticism, but you’re recognizing the fact that there’s an issue, he says.
Bricker says that, many times, people who seem to have personality issues are people who feel like they’re not being heard or are unhappy with their work. They feel like they’re not being heard or respected. In such a case, Bricker suggests having a private conversation and just listening.
“Once they’ve had a chance to air out their thoughts and their feelings, that really contributes greatly toward solving the problem,” he says. You can gain insight about what the problem really is and take steps toward solving it.
Once you have that sit-down, Bricker says you might have to hear some things that aren’t very pleasant. Sometimes, employees have legitimate complaints about the workplace, company culture, or supervisors. (That might be you.) Then, you’ve got to figure out a way to deal with it, he says.
“Sometimes, that might mean explaining in very clear, rational terms why things are the way they are. It may mean looking into what they have to say and understanding that something was overlooked,” he says.
Holloway says that managers need to be trained in giving negative feedback effectively. Simply calling out someone for bad behavior often doesn’t work. Instead, relate it to the bottom line. For example, point out that when the employee responds in a certain way, it shuts down conversation and makes meetings less effective.
It might feel like that difficult employee is impossible to fire because he or she is so good at the job. But Toxic Workplace coauthor Mitchell Kusy, PhD, also a professor at the Antioch leadership program, says that you have to look at the overall cost to your organization. In research for the book, he and Holloway found that 12 percent of individuals leave their organization because of toxic personalities. If your difficult employee is driving out other employees, it might be time to say goodbye, even if it’s a challenge in the short term.