The Challenge of Effectively Managing Toxic Employees
Employee engagement, productivity and customer service levels are at their highest when employees work collaboratively as a team and practice the tenets of civility and respect for each other. This, unfortunately, is not always the case, especially when you have toxic employees.
Managing other people is never easy, but some employees make it particularly difficult. When an employee’s negative attitude is not addressed properly, other team members become resentful, they lose respect for you as a leader, and they may develop their own negative attitude. No leader wants a difficult or toxic employee on their team, however it’s something all leaders need to be prepared to address should it arise. Challenging employees can try a manager’s patience and drain a lot of time and energy, especially as we cope with political and pandemic issues. To turn things around takes skillful management and patience.
Managing Toxic Employees
The term “difficult employee” is typically used to refer to a worker who fails to conduct him- or herself in a responsible and/or professional manner in the workplace. How you and your team effectively deal with negative and difficult team members can mean the difference between having a toxic, drama-filled workplace, and an engaged, collaborative, and productive organization.
Under stress and surrounded by uncertainty, some members of your team become negative and resistant, and are simply more difficult to deal with. Successful leaders realize that reducing the drama within their team depends on being able to understand and respond appropriately to their behaviours. Strategies are centered around WHAT to focus on to move these interactions forward, HOW to effectively respond, and WAYS to manage the impact of their behaviour.
Strategies For Leaders To Effectively Deal With Employee Attitude Issues
- Identify challenges associated with managing difficult employees
- Control your own feelings effectively
- Create a positive work environment
- Quickly and effectively address, coach, and counsel employees with difficult attitudes in order to improve their behavior.
Act Rather Than Re-act
Identify challenges associated with managing toxic employees
A reasonably formal, orderly, well-organized, straight-forward, crisp but friendly work environment helps instill the right expectation in the workforce. Such an environment is almost always deliberately created. It does not just happen. Here are a couple of issues that arise that contribute to workplace toxicity and that ripple out to create even more toxic employees.
In the State of Civility report, 30% of managers indicated that they had fired or threatened to fire someone due to incivility and nearly 25% of employees said they had quit a job due to an uncivil workplace. Additionally, 87% of workers indicated that workplace incivility had impact on their work performance. Bullying is still part of the workplace with 1 in 5 experiencing it and 1 in 5 witnessing it, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. As well, the fear of repercussion for reporting these behaviours often prevent colleagues from pointing out the toxic behaviours.
Research is showing that around 75% of employees are disengaged from their work and workplace. These employees often exhibit negative and difficult behaviours. This can ripple out into higher staff turnover, lower performance, and poor customer service. Disruptive behavior can spread. Note: If you can’t immediately fix the problem or terminate the employment contract, consider separating the disruptive employee from the rest of the team, to keep interruptions to a minimum.
A leader’s plate is often spilling over with too much to do and not enough time to do it in. In some cases, leaders stop paying attention to the difficult or toxic employee. The best leaders get very attentive in these situations. They know that toxic behaviours spread and that these patterns of de-energizing others, disagreeing, and putting down teammates is more than just being rude. The whole team suffers.
All Or Nothing Thinking
Great leaders don’t take a negative employee personally or jump to conclusions or absolutes. “This person will never change.” They keep things in perspective: “Their behavior is creating real problems for the team. I’m doing what I can to support them to change. If they do, great, and if they don’t, I’ll do what I need to do to protect the team.”
Managers have an ethical and sometimes legal obligation to investigate complaints or other evidence of bad behavior and to prevent its reoccurrence by taking prompt, appropriate remedial action. If the leader ignores the problem, they runs the risk of inadvertently condoning unprofessional behavior and toxic employees, and becoming vulnerable to potential legal liability.
Control your own feelings effectively:
The difficulty behind negative attitudes and behaviours is that they are highly “toxic.” You may be functioning just fine when you suddenly have to change gears and deal with someone else’s difficult behaviour or negative attitude. This brings you down, makes you feel grouchy and out-of-control. The next thing you know, you complain, grow stubborn and become more negative or difficult. This bad attitude then ripples out to those around you, infecting them and becoming entrenched in the workplace.
Fraught with difficult people and negative attitudes, your work environment becomes a daily scene of excessive finger-pointing, backstabbing and gossiping, higher rates of absenteeism, lower productivity and decreased quality of customer service. You let these behaviours and these difficult people ruin our day.
Employees are not emotional islands. Rather, they continuously spread their own moods and receive and are influenced by others’ moods. When your employees work in groups, they literally can catch each others’ emotions like viruses, a phenomenon known as emotional contagion. Mimicry is not all bad; a person can also adopt a friend or colleague’s good mood, which can help enhance their bond. However, negative moods are difficult to overcome.
Employees take notice of their leader’s emotions, and therefore leaders strongly influence the mood, attitudes, and performance of their team. Research has also shown that a positive mood can boost performance. Both positive and negative moods may affect performance, but positive moods have a stronger impact. Also, the mood you bring to work affects performance more than moods caused by changes during the workday. As a leader, your mood and attitude matter.
Check out strategies for buffering yourself at Managing Emotional Contagion https://worksmartlivesmart.com/workplace-wellness-office-states-of-mind/
Create a positive work environment
Understanding why some employees become more difficult or negative, and when they are more likely to act that way can prevent that build up of stress from happening.
So why are some people difficult? The answers may lie in different areas, some related to the environment and some related to the “payoff” of using certain behaviours. Some employees learn very early on that the more noise they make, the more likely those around them will respond to their “squeaky-wheel” or “my-way-or-the-highway” approach. These are the employees who use their bodies and voices to intimidate. Some employees feel so hopeless and powerless in their life that they may develop the attitude of “what difference does it make?” These employees may be hard for you to work with, because they are often indecisive, resistant to change or have difficulty expressing their opinion. For some, negative attitudes and behaviours are expressed when they are stressed out and just don’t have the energy to use better communication skills, judgment and manners.
Being stressed out is chronic and pervasive in today’s society. We often have too much to do, are running behind schedule or working with incomplete information. This drains your employee’s energy, which makes it a lot harder to be positive, to keep things in perspective, communicate effectively, and work collaboratively.
What does your workplace environment convey? Is it comfortable, peaceful and engaging. Is it supportive, inclusive, respectful, and authentic? Or is it full of unrealistic demands, lack of control, and low reward and appreciation? If so, look for ways to increase control in decision making and reward for milestones and efforts, and decrease unrealistic demands, discrimination, and excessive overtime. Though the “extras” may seem unnecessary in accomplishing the business of the day, to decrease the incidence of difficult behaviours and negative attitudes, make your workplace a visual, auditory and aromatic haven in their hectic day.
Watch how you are communicating. Bring potential or recurring problems out into the open. Are you listening to people or are you formulating your answer while they are still talking? Give as much information as you can. If someone is working remotely it is especially important that you ensure that communication is clear and comprehensive, so that they can fully understand what the expectations, are as they are often not privy to the side conversations that are being held.
As well, good leaders don’t trash about the short-comings of other employees. It creates an environment of distrust and back-stabbing, it pollutes others’ perception of the person, and it makes you look unprofessional.
Quickly and effectively address, coach, and counsel toxic employees with difficult attitudes in order to improve their behavior.
Understand the Reward
As a leader, your goal is to stop rewarding these irritating behaviours that create such toxicity. To do this, you must understand what toxic employees expect to gain from being so difficult or negative. Some want to feel more in control. Some want to feel important and listened to, and some want to avoid outright conflict, but will act out their annoyance or disagreement through other negative behaviours. Once you understand their needs, it is easier to move difficult people away from problem identification and into problem-solving.
Prepare Ahead of Time
Get a feel for some typical reactions and attitudes that you may face and prepare yourself in advance to deal with them. Be sure not to reward difficult behaviours by giving in or backing off. You need to keep your composure, be assertive and know exactly what it is you want to communicate. Focus on facts and maintain an honest, professional, and respectful attitude. Rehearse various scenarios so you are not caught off-guard.
Open Up the Conversation By Listening
Create a safe space in which your employee can express their opinions and you can actively listen to them. Often just listening can improve the situation as the employee may finally feel heard. Good leaders listen first by opening the conversation, inviting the employee to talk about the situations, and letting them share their opinions on the situation first. “What do you think has been going well and not so well?” This can provide really valuable information, can bring out issues that you may not have been aware of, and make the conversation much less adversarial. Get comfortable with people who need to vent and express themselves – however, do not tolerate abuse.
Provide Feedback and Outline Expectations
From there you can comment and provide feedback on behaviours that you think are contributing to the poorer working situation. With any conflict is important to remind all involved about the goals of the conversation – creating a positive and productive work environment. Outline your expectations and give clear instructions. Sometimes, you will get more useful information if you ask the person to write out the issue that concerns them, as there is less chance of the situation escalating into a “big production.” If the conversation escalates and gets more emotional, try using the person’s name to gain their attention, especially when they are on a rant.
Focus on Behaviours
Critique the behaviour and keep judgement out of the equation. Focus specifically on inappropriate or undesirable behavior the employee has demonstrated. People aren’t always aware of how their behaviour impacts their work and their environment. Bring attention to it in a non-confrontational way with specific examples and why it is inappropriate. “X, I have noticed and overheard you saying some pretty negative things in our meetings lately” or “You’ve raised your voice three times in meetings in the last two weeks in response to a co-worker’s legitimate, respectful question” or “Your behaviors are effective here; they are not effective here.”
Move to Problem-Solving
Help them generate ways to improve the situation while still valuing their needs (control, recognition, to belong, to avoid conflict, etc.). Don’t make the mistake of thinking that good employees would instinctively know what to do to correct their behaviors or even that they would know their behaviors are problematic in the first place. Find solutions that correct the annoying and difficult behaviours, as well as finding out what the employee needs from you to improve. This may include civility training on communication, business etiquette, cultural sensitivity, and diversity awareness.
Document any expectations and behavioural changes so that everyone is on the same page. “Here is what turning this situation around looks like.” Address consequences of failing to make the required changes. “If I don’t see that change by x, here’s what will happen next.” Also agree on how you will monitor their progress – possibly through feedback from colleagues, productivity, or self-reports. One of the most common mistakes leaders make in dealing with difficult and toxic employees after addressing toxic behaviour is to consider the matter closed and put away the file. The greatest factor in sustaining improvements in performance is follow-up. Improvements should be recognized and continued failure addressed.
Self-Care For Leaders Is Crucial While Managing Toxic Employees
Finally, it is essential that you take care of yourself. Dealing with toxic employees and constant negativity requires extra energy and focus. Maintain balance in your life – be sure to have other pursuits that you can count on for pleasure and distraction. Eat properly to control mood swings and to feel more energetic. Cut out caffeine, which heightens your responses and makes you more sensitive to those around you. Get plenty of sleep – probably more than what you are getting now. Have someone to vent to – but not so often and for so long that you alienate that person. Lighten up, have fun and remember to smile. All of these positive behaviours will buffer you against the effects of dealing with tough situations.
To sum up, by understanding what toxic employees expect to gain from using undesirable behaviours, you are in a much better position to deflect and defeat the difficult behaviour and move the person from problem identification to problem-solving. You need to help your employees feel more in control, more important and listened to, and know how to quickly and effectively address, coach, and counsel employees with difficult attitudes in order to improve their behavior. And you need to ensure that you are taking care of yourself and maintaining your own sense of humour and balance. By using these tips, you may be able to stop difficult behaviours and reduce the impact of negative attitudes in creating toxicity in your workplace.
Contact Beverly about hosting a workshop for your teams on how to deal with difficult people and toxic employees at work. Learn strategies to create a more positive attitude in the workplace and encourage an engaging, safe working environment!
If you have some strategies to share – comment on this posting!
Stress and Dealing with Difficult Employees: https://worksmartlivesmart.com/dealing-with-difficult-employees/
Stop Letting Difficult People Ruin Your Day: https://worksmartlivesmart.com/stress-difficult-person-ruin-day/
Dealing With Difficult Customers: https://worksmartlivesmart.com/difficult-customer/
Stop All The Whining and Complaining: https://worksmartlivesmart.com/national-whiners-day-december/
My Way Or The Highway: https://worksmartlivesmart.com/my-way-day-february/
Effectively Handle Negative Attitudes and Difficult People For Better Productivity and Less Drama