How to deal with a difficult team member?

When there are tensions within a team, they usually arise either from the manager himself or from the team members. Indeed, a difficult team member, like a toxic manager, can threaten the way the team works.

When an employee regularly creates problems in a team, the manager should neither downplay the situation nor over-dramatize the problem. It is important for the manager to address the issue before it affects the rest of the team. Indeed, one single team member can slow down the work of the team, create a negative atmosphere or even impact performance...

Either way, the key for the manager facing a problem in his team is to react calmly and constructively.

So, how do you react to an employee who might undermine your team's motivation?

The appropriate reaction to deal with a difficult personality

If you wait too long to react, the problem might impact the work of other team members

The list of difficult profiles is long. Team members can be anxious, arrogant, angry... There is also the one who takes too much space, the one who is unable to listen, the one who is constantly negative, etc. There are numerous different situations and the reaction of the manager has to be adapted. But one thing is certain, the manager must act. The longer you wait to tackle the issue, the more important the problem will become, and even impact other team members.

Here are 3 tips to adopt to prevent the situation from escalating:

  • Take a step back and observe to understand what is going on. First and foremost, it is recommended that you understand the dynamics within your team and identify the main character traits of your employees. If you notice a difficult personality, make sure you're not the only one impacted, see if it is noticed by other people within or outside the team. If so, watch how it concretely impacts to the rest of the team.
  • Understand the reasons and don’t consider only the behavior, nor react without thinking. If an employee is aggressive or too defensive, he may be just lacking confidence? If an employee always imposes his point of view and does not listen to others, perhaps he feels that his place is in danger? If a person is running away from meetings or complaining all the time, try to identify the reasons. Is there an underlying problem? An angry employee, for example, may just be stressed. In short, seek to understand the cause.
  • Use the dynamics of your team to redistribute the tasks according to the relationship and personality of each team member. The objective here is to organize the team in a subtle way and to leverage on the mutual strengths of each other: a stressed person will turn out better working with a calm personality, a very organized employee may well complement a more creative profile... Sometimes the problem can resolve itself by making it easier to collaborate within the team.

If you follow these three simple tips of observing, understanding and adjusting, there is a good chance that the situation will improve without you needing to intervene more strongly.

If nothing changes: the realignment conversation

When the situation does not improve, it is recommended to address the problem openly and directly with the employee. Denying it would only postpone and increase the problem or roadblock. Of course, a realignment conversation has to be conducted one-on-one and not in front of the rest of the team or too casually. Also, make sure you do not take the other person off guard. With a tool like Popwork, you can prepare for the discussion with your team member by asking a few questions beforehand to surface the important topics.

Focus objectively on the problem, not only the person!

For a realignment to be effective, you must explain in a factual way how this behavior becomes a problem for you as a manager but also for the rest of the team. Give specific examples of the negative consequences this has on other team members and the general atmosphere. Describe the facts and explain the consequences. For example, systematically criticizing the work of someone in the team makes this person lose confidence. This makes the rest of the team uncomfortable and creates tensions preventing collaboration. Bottom line: everyone is wasting time. Be careful also not to make it too personal: focus on the problem, not on the person.

Then listen to the point of view of your team member. Why does he systematically criticize the work of others? Is there a specific problem on his side? A need for more recognition? Ask him questions and listen to his answers. Finally, put him in a situation so that he can observe himself, it will help him realize that his behavior may have hurt or affected the rest of the team. By understanding the consequences of his behaviour, he will realize by himself that this is not acceptable and that he needs to change.

The goal of a realignment conversation is to take the time to explain your point of view and find a constructive solution to get off to a new start. It also serves as a reminder of company rules and lines that should not be crossed, but without being aggressive. Make sure you remain encouraging and reassuring! To do this, agree on specific points that your team member can work on. Identifying concrete and short term actions will help the employee change their behavior in just a few days.