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How to Transform Troublesome Employees into Tremendous Team Players

The cover of leading the undead how to manage mavericks, cynics, and other difficult people.

Difficult employees might be the most vexing part of a manager's job. A supervisor's first instinct may be to terminate those "problem people" straightaway.

However, good leaders would first determine whether they can help guide the employees to best use their strengths (and downplay their weaknesses) in ways that will benefit the team and overall organization, says Alan Willett, author of Leading the Unleadable, How to Manage Mavericks, Cynics, Divas and Other Difficult People (AMACOM, 2016).

To do that, a manager must first adjust his or her own mindset, says Willett, president of Oxseeker Inc., a consulting company in Ithaca, N.Y., whose clients include Oracle, Microsoft, Intuit and NASA.

Willett answered questions from HR Magazine's Book Blog about issues covered in his book:

When dealing with difficult people, why is it important for a leader to change his or her mindset?

I have met a number of managers who have the idea that the troublesome employee should simply be fired. Others have a fear of conflict, which leads them to wait too long to confront problems and then feel they are forced to remove the individual.

These mindsets are problematic because they result in a loss of energy and talent for the whole organization. These people who seem unleadable almost always have a number of strong gifts they can bring to the organization. But perhaps one of their traits has crossed a line and is doing damage.

For example, unbridled cynicism is a difficult problem, but underneath the negative comments lies a great skill. The Cynic could help the organization by identifying potential problems in a project early on—but only if handled the right way.

A leader must understand that:

  • There may be underlying reasons why someone is being troublesome, and those reasons can be masking great gifts.
  • Most people who are perceived to be difficult want to help the organization.
  • With the right mindset and methods, she or he can transform the troublesome worker into a tremendous contributor and lift the energy and productivity of the whole organization.

How should a leader do this?

Most good managers I know have themselves been troublesome to the managers above them at some point in their careers. They should reflect on those times. When managers recall those moments, they often get mad at their old boss all over again. But when they think more deeply about the encounter, they may realize that there was no evil intent—they simply had misaligned goals or methods.

Once they come to this realization, leaders can start to develop the mindset that their employees' troublesome behavior isn't based on an intent to do harm but an intent to do good—even if it isn't apparent at the time.

It can be difficult, but once managers master this change in mindset, their anger and negative judgment blow away like a fog and they can clearly see the actions they need to take.

Can you provide suggestions for dealing with some specific types of difficult people you highlight in your book?

The Maverick. Uncontrolled mavericks make constant unproductive changes, while destroying team morale. The exceptional leader will make it clear that their push for improvements is greatly needed and also guide mavericks on how to mentor and inspire others.

The Diva. Divas think everything should be designed around them and their goals for maximum success. While this focus can be useful for their pet projects, it may work to the detriment of others. Give divas more responsibility by pushing their ideals to a higher level. Encourage divas to use their talents to uplift the overall organization the way they do themselves.

The Unleadable. Seemingly unleadable employees are driven by their own quests for excellence. They are dancing to their own heavy metal band while you are trying to organize a rock concert. Because they relentlessly pursue grand ideas that both challenge and inspire them, give them a challenging mountain to climb and then let them figure out how to get to the top.

An excellent leader will find ways to transform the troublesome to the tremendous.

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.


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