Working With Difficult People

Have you read Part Three of this article? Get the first three tips on how to handle difficult people

Tip Four: Don't Just Single Out Poor Performers

A mistake many leaders make, is to focus on having performance improvement discussions with just low performers. Lets make sure you don't make that mistake!

If you've been an 'avoider' of providing performance feedback - now is the time to declare your intent to change.

Have a meeting with your entire team and share your commitment to creating a high performance workplace and your vision (which you read about in Tip 1) for making it a great place to work.

Absolutely avoid giving the message you are going to shape everyone up! You wouldn't do that right?

Rather, make it about "let's focus on continuous improvement of ourselves as individuals and as a team".

Be inspiring.

Get them involved in a vision for making this the best place to work -- a place where they can shine a spotlight on their potential -- and your hope that they will be a part of it.

Of course, expect some cynicism ... especially if your past performance has been poor at handling under-performers. But stay focused on and committed to your vision!

Just to be clear - if you haven't been holding regular performance improvement discussions with ANYONE in your team then don't just single out the poor performers. Dedicate yourself to the high performers too. Help them to continuously improve.

A powerful way to set the content of these discussions is to ask each person to come to the meeting with a list of the:

  1. the things they think they do well
  2. the things they think they could improve upon
  3. the things you do that helps or hinders their performance

Certainly they may arrive with a quite different list from yours, however, this can set you up for a robust and frank discussion.

Let them know that you will be preparing for the meeting in the same way and that your desire is that by the end of the meeting, together, you will decide an action plan that will enable each person to continuously improve their performance and be part of creating a great place to work.

Now set up meetings with each individual. Experience suggests the best way to do this to talk with your high performers first, then the medium performers and finally the low performers. There are a few reasons for doing it this way.

Firstly, people look to see who is getting the most attention and use this to decide which group has the most power. Talking to high performers first sends a clear message that this is where your focus is going to be. (Isn't it ironic that the vast majority of most leader's time is spent with poor performers and working with difficult people ... and with only the occasional nod to people who are doing a great job?!) High performance team leaders give a LOT of attention to their best and mid-line performers.

Secondly, the high performers will let others know that having the one-to-one is 'no biggy' and that they are excited by where you are going as a team.

Thirdly, it gives you, the leader, the chance to practice your skills in having performance feedback discussions, guiding the conversation in the direction you want and strengthens YOU before you begin working with difficult people.

When you have the discussion with a low performer(s) you can expect them to arrive with little to no performance improvements and to push back quite firmly against any negative feedback you give them.

To have had training in a program like Successful Feedback will enable you to handle this discussion ... I won't kid you, working with difficult people is never easy ... but with some skills you can certainly handle the conversations with a degree of calmness and confidence.

Finally, don't be afraid of asking what you do that hinders. Remember the saying 'the truth shall set you free'.

Sure there may be things they don't want you to do and that you AREN'T going to stop doing. That's okay simply be clear about what you are willing to change and what you aren't.

Be willing though to listen with an open mind and look carefully at the things they say you are doing that hinders them. If the feedback is consistent across the team it definitely is something you should give strong consideration to modifying.

Tip Five: Be Kind And Be Easy About Awkward!

Many people avoid addressing poor performers, because it can get awkward. Awkward for the person giving the feedback, and challenging for the person receiving it.

However, a high performance leader knows that, in the long-term, the kindest thing they can do is let a person know about behaviors that are holding their success back... so they have the choice to change.

Do You Want Me To Be Kind Or Truthful?

When you ask most people this question they respond with truthful. Your job is to do both.

You are not being kind when you hold back from others information that could be harming them.

For example, wouldn't you like to know that others see you as divisive and rude ... when you see yourself as a person who challenges and generates discussions.

Or as a dithering marshmallow ... when you see yourself as someone who goes along to support team unity?

Wouldn't you want to know that this perception is putting the brakes on your career?

Remember though, when working with difficult people ... the only person you can change is YOU. So if they don't want to change there is little you can do about it -- other than invite them to work elsewhere!

Tip Six: Daily Interaction and Regular Sit Down/One-to-One Discussions

You can avoid working with difficult people if, on a regular and consistent basis you let people know how they are going. You can do this easily during normal day-to-day activities by acknowledging when people are doing well, as well as providing performance-gap feedback. Do this as soon as you observe a change (either good or bad) to reinforce what you want and where you are heading.

Certainly you don't want to come across as an annoying cheerleader or a carping criticizer - in any of these conversations (formal or informal). Make sure your tone is easy, your approach/mindset is "I'm wanting to help you be at your absolute best" and encourage not discourage.

If someone shows a pattern of not meeting expectations then it is important that you follow the processes your organization uses to handle poor performers and manage someone out of your business.

Give the person every opportunity to get it right and tell them that you know they can meet the performance needs (both socially and technically) of the business if they want to do it. However, if they make the choice to not meet expectations then you must take action and more importantly the team must see that you are taking action to handle this situation.

No point in patting someone on the hand once or twice a year to let them know they are doing a 'good' or 'bad' job.

A hallmark of a high performance organization is that performance improvement systems are in place and used frequently.

Setting up a 'formal' one-on-one with each of your team members, to talk about what is working and what isn't working really helps you and the team to swiftly achieve excellence. Of course, this 'formal' one-on-one doesn't replace your daily interactions, where you are guiding, inspiring and loving your people.

I strongly encourage all leaders I coach to set up weekly (best) or monthly (at minimum) meetings where they sit down quietly for 15-30 mins with each of their team members to talk about things like:

  • what is going well,
  • what is stopping them from performing at their best,
  • what plans they have to overcome any challenges
  • how the leader could help them with these challenges (as a barrier buster not as a problem fixer - empower them to fix the majority of their issues)
  • what they are doing to ensure they are having and getting the best possible work experience

Keeping people engaged at work means showing them that you see them as their best and you expect nothing less.

Tip Seven: Recognize & Acknowledge The Right Performance

Well, if you aren't aware that acknowledging good performance is important to people's motivation, you've probably been hiding under a bushel for the past 30 years   smile

However the most important distinction is that you are recognizing and acknowledging the 'right' performance.

This Leader Got It Sooo Wrong ...

Some time ago I worked with a client, and just happened to be present during a meeting, where he presented an award to a team member for the highest number of 'customer care calls'. As this person went up to receive his award the reactions from his team mates were unmistakable. Dismay, frustration and a lot of eye-rolling.

On checking with the other team members about the reaction I'd seen, it unfolded that this team member had been the worst performer in the team, (on many levels), for a long period of time. Several of the team members commented that, he got the 'highest number of calls' by getting people off the phone quickly. He didn't deal with customer problems adequately - customers had to call back several times to get their problems resolved - meaning their complaint rate had gone up -- and this was mostly due to that team member. Ouch!

When I queried the team leader, he said he had 'wanted to give the guy some acknowledgement for something', in the hope that he might improve in other areas! All it managed to do was to alienate the rest of the team. It reinforced with them, and the poor performer, that this leader wasn't on top of the operation, the behaviors needed for the team to run well, and that people could pretty much get away with anything.

Do make sure that you are acknowledge the 'softer' side of performance. When people use behaviors, that are aligned with the company's values and mission, let them and others know that this is an important part of your company's success. Making a song and dance about people getting the values and behaviors part right, certainly makes others sit up and take notice.

Working with difficult people is challenging for any leader. But, have faith that, as you learn how to handle difficult people well, you can help them to either improve their performance, or find opportunities elsewhere. And what a wonderful gift this is ... to give to yourself, your people, your business and the poor performer.

You are giving them the gift of being able to find something that might make them happier ... either feeling good about being a high performer or finding another role/organization that better suits their needs.

Leave A Comment

Have your say about what you just read! Leave a comment in the box below.