How to Manage Difficult Employees
Management,  Leadership

How to Manage Difficult Employees: 58 Strategies for Success

Hey there, fellow leaders and team navigators!

Managing a team is like conducting a symphony – beautiful when everyone’s in harmony, but what about those moments when one instrument seems to be playing a completely different tune?

In my journey as a leader, I’ve faced the delightful challenge of managing difficult employees.

You know the ones – the puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit, the square pegs in a world of round holes.

But here’s the kicker: these moments are where leadership truly flexes its muscles.

So, grab your coffee, or beverage of choice, and let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of managing difficult employees.

I’m not talking about a one-size-fits-all manual, but rather a collection of 58 strategies that have been battle-tested in the unpredictable terrain of real-world workplaces.

No fluff, no corporate mumbo-jumbo – just practical insights to turn those challenging dynamics into opportunities for growth and success.

Because, let’s face it, leadership isn’t just about managing tasks; it’s about navigating the complexities of human interactions.

So, whether you’re a seasoned manager or just finding your footing, buckle up for a journey through the trenches of leadership where we’ll unpack strategies, share stories, and emerge with a toolbox that’s ready for anything those “difficult” employees throw our way.


Let’s roll and discover how to manage difficult employees!

Table of Contents

Understanding Difficult Employee Behavior

Understanding Difficult Employee Behavior

Difficult employee behavior can manifest in various ways, and it is crucial to understand the underlying causes to effectively address them.

By identifying the different types of difficult employees, you can tailor your management approach accordingly.

Chronic Complainer

One type of difficult employee is the “chronic complainer.

These individuals constantly find fault in their work environment and tend to spread negativity among their colleagues. They may complain about everything from the temperature in the office to the workload they are assigned. Chronic complainers often drain the energy of those around them and can create a toxic work environment if left unchecked.


Another type is the “know-it-all,” who often challenges authority and dismisses others’ opinions. These employees have an inflated sense of their knowledge and abilities and believe that they are always right. They may undermine team dynamics and hinder collaboration by refusing to consider alternative viewpoints.

Common causes of difficult employee behavior include

  • personal issues,
  • job dissatisfaction,
  • poor communication, or
  • lack of clarity in expectations.

Personal issues such as

  • financial problems,
  • relationship conflicts, or
  • health concerns

can significantly impact an employee’s behavior at work.

Job dissatisfaction, whether due to a lack of growth opportunities, unfair treatment, or a mismatch between skills and responsibilities, can also contribute to difficult behavior.

Poor communication is another factor that can lead to difficult employee behavior. When employees feel that they are not being heard or that their concerns are being dismissed, they may resort to disruptive or confrontational behavior as a way to get attention. Similarly, when expectations are not communicated, employees may become frustrated and act out.

It is essential to approach these situations with empathy and understanding, as there may be underlying factors that contribute to their behavior.

Taking the time to have open and honest conversations with difficult employees can help uncover the root causes of their behavior and allow for a more targeted approach to addressing the issue.

Providing support, such as counseling or additional training, can also be beneficial in helping employees overcome their difficulties and improve their behavior.

28 Strategies for Effectively Managing Difficult Employees

Managing difficult employees can be a challenging but essential part of leadership. Here are 28 key strategies, including some unconventional and innovative approaches, to effectively manage difficult employees:

1. Self-Reflection:

  • Start by reflecting on your own management style and communication approach.

2. Active Listening:

  • Listen attentively to the employee’s concerns, frustrations, and feedback.

3. Empathy:

  • Show understanding and compassion for the employee’s perspective.

4. Set Clear Expectations:

  • Ensure that job roles and expectations are clearly defined and communicated.

5. Constructive Feedback:

  • Provide feedback in a constructive and non-confrontational manner.

6. Individualized Support:

  • Tailor your management approach to each employee’s unique needs and motivations.

7. Regular Check-Ins:

  • Schedule frequent one-on-one meetings to discuss progress and address concerns.

8. Mentorship Programs:

  • Implement mentorship programs to pair difficult employees with experienced colleagues.

9. Conflict Resolution Training:

  • Offer training in conflict resolution techniques for both managers and employees.

10. Peer Feedback:

  • Encourage colleagues to provide feedback and support for the difficult employee.

11. Emotional Intelligence Training:

  • Provide training in emotional intelligence to help employees manage their emotions.

12. Performance Improvement Plans:

  • Develop structured plans to help struggling employees meet performance expectations.

13. Flexibility:

14. Mediation Services:

  • Bring in professional mediators to facilitate conversations when needed.

15. Job Rotation:

  • Explore opportunities for job rotation to engage and motivate employees.

16. Employee Assistance Programs:

  • Offer access to counseling services through employee assistance programs.

17. Conflict Coaching:

  • Provide coaching to help employees navigate conflicts independently.

18. Goal Setting:

  • Collaboratively set achievable goals with challenging employees.

19. Recognize Achievements:

  • Celebrate small wins and achievements to boost morale.

20. Psychological Safety:

  • Create an environment where employees feel safe sharing their concerns.

21. Peer Reviews:

  • Implement peer review systems to gather feedback from colleagues.

22. Team Building Activities:

  • Organize team-building activities to improve relationships and communication.

23. Encourage Ownership:

  • Empower employees to take ownership of their roles and decisions.

24. Diversity and Inclusion Training:

  • Promote diversity and inclusion through training and awareness programs.

25. Gamification:

  • Use gamification techniques to make learning and improvement engaging.

26. Reverse Mentoring:

  • Encourage younger or less-experienced employees to mentor senior colleagues.

27. Role Reevaluation:

  • Assess whether the employee’s current role aligns with their strengths and interests.

28. Transition Assistance:

  • Provide support and resources for employees considering career transitions.

Effectively managing difficult employees requires a multifaceted approach that combines empathy, communication, and innovative solutions.

By implementing these strategies, you can foster a positive work environment and help challenging employees reach their full potential.

Personal Experience – How Can I Effectively Manage Difficult Employee Situations and Conflicts?

Alright, let’s dive into the trenches of management, where the real stories unfold.

Picture this: you’ve got a team of diverse personalities –

  • the overachiever,
  • the eternal skeptic,
  • and, of course, the one who can turn a casual conversation into a full-blown debate.

In my stint as a team lead, managing difficult employee situations wasn’t just a task; it was an art form.

One particular scenario stands out vividly.

There was this clash between two team members, each convinced their way was the highway.

Now, here’s where the real challenge kicked in.

I could’ve thrown some corporate jargon their way, but who does that benefit?

Instead, I took a different route – a more human one.

Sitting down with each of them individually, I became the mediator, not the manager.

We talked about goals, aspirations, and yes, even frustrations.

No big words, no elaborate strategies – just genuine conversation.

It wasn’t a magic fix, but it laid the groundwork for understanding.

And you know what?

Over time, those conflicting team members started to see eye to eye.

It wasn’t about imposing authority; it was about finding common ground.

That experience taught me that effective management in tough situations isn’t a formula; it’s a willingness to embrace the messy, unpredictable human side of work.

So, when faced with employee conflicts, my advice?

Skip the rulebook and lean into authenticity.

Your team is made up of individuals, not robots.

It’s messy, but it’s also where the real solutions lie.

Trust me; it’s a journey worth taking.

Effective Communication Techniques

Communication plays a vital role in managing difficult employees. Active listening and empathy are powerful tools to establish trust and foster a constructive environment. Actively listen to their concerns and show genuine empathy by putting yourself in their shoes.

When it comes to active listening, it goes beyond just hearing what the employee is saying. It involves paying attention to their body language, tone of voice, and non-verbal cues. By doing so, you can gain a deeper understanding of their emotions and concerns, allowing you to respond more compassionately and effectively.

In addition to active listening, empathy is essential in building a positive relationship with difficult employees. Empathy involves understanding and sharing the feelings of another person. By putting yourself in their shoes, you can better comprehend their perspective and respond with understanding and compassion.

Setting clear expectations and boundaries is also crucial. Communicate the standards and behaviors expected from your employees, providing them with a roadmap for success. This ensures everyone is on the same page and reduces misunderstandings and conflicts.

When setting expectations, it is important to be specific and avoid ambiguity. Clearly define what success looks like, outlining the key performance indicators and goals that employees need to meet. This clarity helps employees understand what is expected of them and provides them with a clear direction to work towards.

Furthermore, setting boundaries is essential in managing difficult employees. Boundaries define the limits of acceptable behavior and ensure that everyone in the workplace is treated with respect and professionalism. Communicate these boundaries to your employees, making it clear what is and is not acceptable in terms of behavior and conduct.

When communicating expectations and boundaries, it is important to be consistent and follow through with consequences when they are not met. This reinforces the importance of adhering to the established standards and behaviors, promoting a positive work environment.

In conclusion, effective communication techniques such as active listening, empathy, setting clear expectations, and establishing boundaries are vital in managing difficult employees. By utilizing these techniques, you can build trust, foster a constructive environment, and ensure that everyone is working towards a common goal.

Conflict Resolution Strategies

Conflict Resolution Strategies

In any workplace, conflicts are inevitable. As a manager, it is your responsibility to mediate and facilitate resolution. Mediation techniques involve bringing both parties together in a neutral environment to openly discuss their perspectives and find common ground. This can help build understanding and restore harmony.

In addition to mediation, addressing conflicts constructively is essential. Encourage open communication, where individuals can express their concerns without fear of judgment. Foster an environment where conflict is seen as an opportunity for growth and learning.

When mediating conflicts, it is important to establish ground rules to ensure a productive and respectful discussion. Encourage active listening, where each party focuses on understanding the other’s point of view rather than just waiting for their turn to speak. This can help create an atmosphere of empathy and mutual respect, laying the foundation for a successful resolution.

Another effective strategy is to encourage brainstorming and problem-solving. Once the parties have expressed their concerns, guide them in identifying potential solutions. Encourage them to think outside the box and explore alternatives that may not have been considered before. This collaborative approach can lead to creative and mutually beneficial resolutions.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that conflicts can often arise from misunderstandings or miscommunication. As a manager, take the time to clarify expectations and ensure that everyone involved has a clear understanding of the situation. This can help prevent conflicts from escalating and promote a more harmonious work environment.

Additionally, it is crucial to address conflicts promptly. Ignoring or postponing conflict resolution can lead to further tension and negatively impact team dynamics. By addressing conflicts promptly, you can prevent them from festering and becoming more difficult to resolve.

Moreover, as a manager, it is important to lead by example in conflict resolution. Demonstrate effective communication skills, active listening, and empathy. When employees see their manager handling conflicts calmly and respectfully, they are more likely to follow suit and adopt similar strategies.

Lastly, it is essential to provide ongoing support and follow-up after conflict resolution. Check-in with the individuals involved to ensure that the resolution is being implemented and that any lingering issues are being addressed. This can help maintain a positive work environment and prevent similar conflicts from arising in the future.

Providing Feedback and Coaching

Feedback is crucial for employee development. It not only helps individuals understand how they are performing, but it also provides them with valuable insights on how to improve and grow. When offering constructive feedback, it is important to approach it in a way that is helpful and supportive.

One effective approach is to focus on the behavior and its impact, rather than attacking the individual. By doing so, you create a safe and non-threatening environment where employees are more likely to be receptive to feedback. For example, instead of saying, “You always make mistakes,” you could say, “When you make errors, it can lead to delays and impact the team’s productivity.”

In addition to focusing on the behavior, using metaphors or analogies can be a powerful tool in explaining complex concepts. By using relatable examples, you make it easier for employees to understand and internalize the feedback. For instance, you could compare a well-functioning team to a well-oiled machine, emphasizing the importance of each individual’s contribution to the overall success.

Coaching and mentoring approaches can also be highly effective in managing difficult employees. Instead of simply reprimanding or disciplining them, taking a coaching approach allows you to provide guidance and support. By understanding their unique challenges and helping them develop their skills, you can empower them to overcome obstacles and reach their full potential.

It is important to encourage employees to take ownership of their growth and development. By setting clear goals and providing ongoing support, you inspire them to actively engage in their learning journey. This not only benefits the individual but also contributes to a positive and productive work environment.

Remember, providing feedback and coaching is an ongoing process. It requires continuous communication and a genuine commitment to helping employees succeed. By investing time and effort into these practices, you can foster a culture of continuous improvement and empower your team to thrive.

Creating a Positive Work Environment

A positive work environment is crucial for the success of any organization. It not only enhances employee morale but also improves productivity and overall job satisfaction. When employees feel valued and supported, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated, leading to a more harmonious workplace.

One way to foster a positive work environment is by encouraging teamwork and collaboration. When employees work together towards a common goal, they feel a sense of belonging and camaraderie. This can be achieved through team-building activities, such as group projects or team outings, where employees can bond and develop strong relationships.

Another important aspect of creating a positive work environment is recognizing and appreciating individual contributions. When employees’ efforts are acknowledged, they feel valued and motivated to continue performing at their best. Managers can publicly recognize employees’ achievements, whether it’s through a company-wide email, a staff meeting, or an employee recognition program. This not only boosts morale but also sets a standard of excellence for others to aspire to.

In addition to recognition, providing opportunities for growth and development is essential for creating a positive work environment. Employees who feel that their organization invests in their professional growth are more likely to be satisfied and engaged. This can be done through training programs, mentorship initiatives, or career advancement opportunities. When employees see a clear path for their career progression, they are motivated to work harder and contribute more to the organization.

Furthermore, effective communication plays a vital role in maintaining a positive work environment. Managers should ensure that there is open and transparent communication between all levels of the organization. This includes regular team meetings, one-on-one check-ins, and an open-door policy where employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns. When employees feel heard and understood, they are more likely to be satisfied and motivated to contribute their best work.

12 Innovative Ways to Deal with Difficult Employees as a New Manager

Being a new manager can be challenging, especially when you have to deal with difficult employees. But fear not! We’ve compiled a list of 12 unconventional and innovative approaches to help you navigate these tricky situations and foster a more harmonious work environment.

  1. Start with Empathy:
    • Instead of jumping to conclusions, take time to understand the employee’s perspective and motivations. Empathy can bridge gaps and build trust.
  2. Active Listening:
    • Practice active listening by giving your full attention to the employee. This shows that you value their input and are willing to hear them out.
  3. Seek Feedback:
    • Encourage employees to provide feedback about your management style. This two-way communication can identify areas for improvement and build rapport.
  4. Individualized Development Plans:
    • Create personalized development plans for difficult employees. Tailor your approach to their unique needs and goals to help them improve.
  5. Mentorship Programs:
    • Implement a mentorship program where experienced employees can guide their challenging colleagues. This can lead to positive role modeling and skill development.
  6. Conflict Resolution Workshops:
    • Organize workshops on conflict resolution and communication skills. Providing employees with the tools to address issues can lead to a more peaceful workplace.
  7. Team Building Activities:
    • Engage in team-building activities that encourage collaboration and camaraderie among employees. Stronger team bonds can mitigate conflicts.
  8. Flexible Work Arrangements:
    • Consider flexible work arrangements, such as remote work or alternative schedules, to accommodate employee needs and reduce stress.
  9. Encourage Self-Reflection:
    • Promote self-awareness by encouraging employees to reflect on their behavior and how it impacts their colleagues and the workplace.
  10. Constructive Feedback Sandwich:
    • Use the “feedback sandwich” method: Start with a positive comment, address the issue, and end with another positive comment to soften the criticism.
  11. Conflict Mediation:
    • Bring in a professional mediator to help resolve conflicts that seem irresolvable. A neutral third party can offer fresh perspectives and solutions.
  12. Set Clear Expectations:
    • Establish clear expectations and performance standards from day one. This minimizes misunderstandings and reduces the likelihood of conflicts arising.

Dealing with difficult employees as a new manager can be a learning experience, and these innovative approaches will help you navigate the challenges more effectively. Remember, a proactive and empathetic approach can lead to a more harmonious and productive work environment. Manage difficult employees without losing them by applying these 12 unconventional methodologies !

9 Innovative Strategies for Managing Bad Employees

Managing bad employees can be a daunting task, but with innovative strategies, you can turn things around and foster growth and improvement. Here are nine unconventional approaches to effectively manage difficult team members:

  1. Conduct a Strengths Assessment:
    • Instead of focusing solely on weaknesses, identify the employee’s strengths and leverage them. Assign tasks that align with their abilities to boost confidence and performance.
  2. Mentorship Pairing:
    • Pair a struggling employee with a high-performing mentor. This mentor can provide guidance, share insights, and serve as a positive influence.
  3. Embrace Reverse Performance reviews:
    • Allow employees to evaluate their managers. Encourage open feedback to create a culture of accountability and ensure that your leadership style isn’t contributing to the problem.
  4. Gamify Performance Improvement:
    • Create a gamified system where employees earn points or rewards for meeting performance goals. This approach can make improvement more engaging and fun.
  5. Individualized Growth Plans:
    • Develop personalized growth plans for each bad employee. Set specific goals, provide resources for skill development, and regularly track progress.
  6. Encourage Self-Development:
    • Inspire employees to take ownership of their development by offering access to learning resources, courses, or certifications that align with their interests and career goals.
  7. Implement Peer Accountability:
    • Encourage peer accountability by having team members hold each other responsible for meeting goals and adhering to workplace standards. This approach can foster a sense of ownership.
  8. Introduce Flexible Work Arrangements:
    • Allow employees to have flexible work arrangements if possible. It can help them manage personal challenges that may be affecting their performance.
  9. Consider Temporary Reassignment:
    • Temporarily reassign the employee to a different team or project to provide a fresh start. This can break negative patterns and allow for a change of scenery.

Managing bad employees doesn’t always require punitive measures. By embracing innovative and empathetic approaches, you can help your team members improve their performance, grow professionally, and contribute positively to your organization.

9 Innovative Strategies for Managing Stubborn Employees

Dealing with stubborn employees can be a challenge, but innovative strategies can help you effectively manage them while maintaining a positive work environment. Here are nine unconventional approaches to managing stubborn team members:

  1. Foster Autonomy:
    • Give stubborn employees more control over their work. Allowing them to make decisions can help them feel valued and more willing to cooperate.
  2. Appeal to Their Expertise:
    • Recognize their knowledge and expertise in specific areas. Ask for their input and involve them in problem-solving to tap into their strengths.
  3. Use Data to Influence:
    • Present data-driven arguments to support your point of view. Stubborn employees may be more receptive to facts and figures than emotional appeals.
  4. Rotate Leadership Roles:
    • Assign leadership roles temporarily. This can help them see the challenges of managing and may encourage more cooperation when they return to their regular roles.
  5. Collaborative Decision-Making:
    • Involve stubborn employees in decision-making processes. This can make them feel heard and invested in the outcomes.
  6. Peer Mentorship:
    • Encourage peer mentorship by pairing them with colleagues who have successfully overcome similar challenges. Learning from peers can be highly effective.
  7. Feedback-Forward Approach:
    • Instead of focusing on past mistakes, emphasize future improvement. Ask them how they plan to address issues and what support they need.
  8. Incentivize Flexibility:
    • Create a reward system for flexibility and adaptability. Offer incentives for employees who are willing to change their approach when necessary.
  9. Conflict Coaching:
    • Provide conflict coaching for stubborn employees. This can help them develop better conflict resolution skills and improve their ability to work with others.

Managing stubborn employees doesn’t have to be a constant battle. By employing these innovative strategies, you can encourage them to be more open to change, collaborate effectively, and contribute positively to your team’s success.

Coaching Difficult Employees

Let’s keep it real – coaching difficult employees can feel like wrestling an octopus.

It’s a challenge. So, here’s my two cents on the matter, and the game-changer in my toolkit?


Now, I’m not the office guru, but when I found myself in the ring with tricky team members, SCAMPER became my tag-team partner.

No need for the usual HR jargon; it’s a set of questions that turns coaching difficult employees from a battlefield into a chess game.

Substitute: You’ve got that one team member who’s like a square peg in a round hole. Substitute kicks in, asking, “What if I swapped their role for a better fit?” It’s not about a personnel overhaul; it’s about finding the right groove.

Combine: Some personalities clash like cymbals in a rock band. Combine steps up, saying, “Can I mix up these team dynamics for a more harmonious tune?” It’s not about overcomplicating; it’s about finding the right rhythm.

Adapt: Difficult employees often need a nudge in a different direction. Adapt is the cool friend saying, “Let’s add a new element to their routine.” It’s not about turning into a life coach; it’s about a subtle shift.

Modify/Magnify: Every team has that one pain point. Modify is the magnifying glass, asking, “What if we tweaked the process a bit?” It’s not about a revolution; it’s about an evolution.

Purpose: Even difficult team members have skills. Purpose steps in, asking, “Could this person’s strengths shine in a different role?” It’s not about demotion; it’s about finding the right stage.

Eliminate/Minimize: We all know that one employee who brings unnecessary drama. Eliminate/Minimize is the minimalist saying, “Trim the unnecessary, focus on the core.” It’s not about a witch hunt; it’s about decluttering.

Rearrange/Reverse: Stuck in a communication rut? Rearrange/Reverse is the game-changer, asking, “What if we flipped the script on how we interact?” It’s not about chaos; it’s about a fresh perspective.

So, in my world, SCAMPER isn’t a magic wand, but it’s a darn good compass when dealing with the complexities of managing a team. It’s not about fancy management theories; it’s about practicality. The next time you’re in the ring with difficult employees, maybe give SCAMPER a spin.

Who knows, it might just be the tag-team partner you didn’t know you needed.

In conclusion, creating a positive work environment is not a one-time effort but an ongoing process. By fostering a culture of respect, collaboration, recognition, and growth, organizations can cultivate a workplace where employees feel valued and motivated. This, in turn, leads to higher productivity, improved job satisfaction, and a more harmonious workplace for all.

Final Thoughts:

In the realm of managing difficult employee situations, it’s not about wielding a managerial scepter; it’s about embracing the chaos with a touch of humanity.

Through the battles of conflicting personalities, I’ve learned that the real victory isn’t in suppressing the storm but in navigating through it.

Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution neatly packaged in a management handbook.

Instead, it’s about recognizing the unique dance of personalities within your team and finding a rhythm that works.

That might mean ditching the corporate script for genuine conversations or acknowledging that conflicts are as much a part of the workplace as coffee breaks.

Sure, it gets messy – and that’s okay.

Managing difficult situations isn’t about eliminating the discomfort; it’s about turning it into an opportunity for growth.

So, my parting advice?

Embrace the mess, be authentically human, and watch how conflicts can transform into catalysts for positive change.

Here’s to navigating the unpredictable terrain of workplace dynamics

– one genuine conversation at a time.

What is yours? Tell me about your way of managing difficult employees!


How can I identify different types of difficult employees in my team?

Understanding Difficult Employee Behavior

Recognizing difficult employee types involves observing behaviors. Examples include chronic complainers who spread negativity or know-it-alls challenging authority. Identifying such traits aids in tailoring your management approach effectively.

What are common causes of difficult employee behavior in the workplace?

Understanding the concept of being set up to fail

Difficult behavior may stem from personal issues (financial problems, relationship conflicts), job dissatisfaction, poor communication, or unclear expectations. Understanding these causes is vital for addressing difficulties empathetically.

How can I approach difficult employee situations with empathy?

A small business owner and their employees engaging in activities that demonstrate empathy and recognition

Empathetic approaches involve open and honest conversations. Take time to understand the root causes of their behavior. Providing support, such as counseling or additional training, can contribute to improving their conduct.

What are some unconventional strategies for managing difficult employees?

A conductor leading a symphony orchestra

Unconventional strategies include implementing gamification, introducing peer accountability, and utilizing conflict coaching. These innovative approaches aim to create engaging solutions and promote personal growth.

How can I deal with stubborn employees as a new manager?

How to Retain Employees Despite Lack of Communication Competency and Motivation

New managers can employ innovative strategies such as fostering autonomy, appealing to expertise, and using data-driven arguments. These approaches aim to influence change and encourage cooperation.

What are common causes of difficult employee behavior?

A restaurant manager using non-verbal communication techniques to resolve a conflict between two employees

Difficult employee behavior can stem from personal issues (financial problems, relationship conflicts, health concerns), job dissatisfaction, poor communication, and lack of clarity in expectations.

What are effective strategies for managing difficult employees?

Understanding Difficult Employee Behavior

Strategies include self-reflection, active listening, empathy, clear expectations, constructive feedback, individualized support, regular check-ins, mentorship programs, and conflict resolution training.

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