Difficult Co-workers: a Successful Resolution

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In my professional life, I have encountered quite a few difficult co-workers. Apparently, they were difficult to manage. So I guess it must be the inevitable part of the management job.

In every company, there is one (or more) difficult co-worker who either does not deliver good work or is difficult to get along with.

What’s unfortunate about this is that most leaders are effectively held hostage and spend a disproportionate amount of time, thought and emotional energy on these co-workers. A single difficult co-worker usually saps more energy than the entire rest of the team combined.

I’ve learned a number of actions that good leaders take when confronted with a difficult employee—actions that prevent them from being sucked into an endless spiral of ineffectiveness and frustration.

I’m excited to share that I have launched an on-demand course that walks you through an exercise to successfully have a difficult conversation. The course itself is only about an hour, but it will help you be prepared for all the difficult conversations you may have either at work or at home. It’s worth it.

See The Course

1. Difficult co-workers need good listeners.

When a co-worker is struggling, we often stop paying attention to what is actually going on. We are irritated, it seems hopeless, and we have already decided what we think about the employee. So we automatically direct our attention more to other things, out of a combination of avoidance and self-protection. But top leaders become very observant when someone is not doing well. They know that their best chance to improve the situation is to understand it as clearly as possible, and to find out the co-worker’s point of view as well.

An additional bonus: in some cases, simply listening can save the day. You may hear about a real problem that isn’t the co-worker’s fault, but it is one you can solve. You may be surprised to find that the co-worker in question behaves very differently once he or she feels heard. Or you may discover problems that you can easily address and fix. 

2. Difficult co-workers need clear, behavioral feedback.

Most managers spend months, even years, complaining about bad co-workers without ever giving those co-workers feedback on what they need to do differently. Giving tough feedback is one of the most unpleasant parts of being a leader. But great leaders learn to do it sensibly, and after they learn it, they do it. There are two important things: first, lower the other person’s defensiveness; second, give them the information they need to improve. No matter what approach you use in your feedback, these two things are a must!

3. Be consistent!

If you say you disagree with a behavior, don’t let it slide. Co-workers look more at what you do than what you say. It often happens that misconduct is sanctioned one time and not the next. For example, if a task needs to be done by a certain time and it isn’t, your response should always be the same. However, you should only set standards that you will stick to, and then you must stick to them!

4. Sanction if things don’t change.

If things still don’t improve at this point, good leaders become precise. They say some version of, “I still think you can make this work. And I expect exactly this or that from you. If I don’t see this behavior by X date, you can expect a written warning.” This is about a substantial, negative consequence. Employees need to understand that their behavior will ACTUALLY have negative consequences—why else would they change?

5. If you can’t get a handle on difficult employees, get HR involved.

Now we get into the area where you want to give a written warning. You should always and only do this in a cooperation with HR. An incorrectly given warning is counterproductive. In case of doubt, it can also prevent a termination resulting from it. The HR department must be involved because it knows exactly how and when to give warnings. 

6 Don’t poison the atmosphere!

All too often, managers believe they must discuss the problem with other co-workers instead of taking the steps described above. No matter how difficult a co-worker may be, good managers don’t talk about the problem with anyone except the affected co-worker and Human Resources. Gossip will create an environment of distrust that makes a leader look weak and unprofessional. Don’t do it!

7. Difficult co-workers need your proper attitude.

Make sure you don’t think too positively or too negatively during the process. “This guy is a fool and will never change!” and, “Everything will be fine, he’s great, there’s no problem,” are unhelpful lines of thought. Good leaders make an assessment that describes the situation as accurately as possible. For example, “His behavior is creating real problems for the team. I’m doing what I can to help him change. If he does, great, or if he doesn’t, I will do what I need to do.”

8. Have courage!

Parting ways with a co-worker is the hardest thing a manager has to do. When it comes to this point, do it right. Don’t talk your way out of it, don’t put it off to the distant future, and don’t let someone else handle it. The best leaders do the hard things themselves. And if the co-worker changes his or her behavior in a positive way, be brave enough to accept that, too.

Learn to use these steps when you have a difficult co-worker. In the end, you’ll know you did your best in a difficult situation, and that is the best stress-reducer of all!

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

About the coach​

Kai Boyd has been a leader, trainer and facilitator since 1989. He supports leaders and their teams to work together effectively, trustfully and with ease. This involves each and everyone – in their respective roles and as people. Tailor-made formats and genuine attention enable potential to unfold and synergies to emerge.

The graduate industrial engineer, managing director and former management consultant knows the requirements of his clients from many perspectives. He works systemically, strength- and solution-oriented. Leading international teams as well as work and academic programs in the USA and the UK enable him to always contribute the international perspective.

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