How to Manage People Who Are Hard to Manage?
Management would be easy if everyone you managed were hard working, collaborative, and had a great attitude and exceptional talent. But then it wouldn’t be management. It would be sitting around doing little while legions of highly motivated people worked happily and diligently. The reality of course is far different. Simply put, some people are easy to manage and others are hard. And “hard” takes many forms. Some are talented but not collaborative. Some are collaborative but not too talented. Some are too aggressive and others not aggressive enough. Some are well-intentioned but high maintenance, moody or easily distracted. Some are just plain difficult. And so on. You get the idea.
So how do you manage this challenging subset of the broader employee population? Personalities being variable, individuals need to be managed individually, but there’s still general guidance that can be provided. In that spirit, here are six tips for managing people who are hard to manage.
Accept that management is an inherently complex and difficult job – Don’t fight it. Don’t waste time and valuable mental energy wishing it weren’t so. Recognize that frustrations and difficult situations go with the territory of management. That’s why you’re being compensated more than if you weren’t in management. Approach delicate employee “issues” positively, like an intriguing puzzle to solve.
Don’t avoid or bulldoze conflict, but deal with it directly and evenhandedly – Conflict is the currency of management. If you abhor conflict, management likely isn’t the right job for you. The best managers aren’t “conflict avoiders,” but neither do they pull rank and roll right over others when conflicts occurs. Remember, you’re going to have to continue work with these same people in the future. Best to look for fair constructive resolutions, not simply “getting your way.”
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Try to see things through the eyes of others – Easier said than done, I know. But there may be reasons why a certain person is hard to manage. Has he or she always been this way, or may new external factors be contributing? Is there anything in your own management style (hard to imagine, I know!) that could be triggering an oppositional response? There were times, for example, I was unnecessarily micromanaging people and was completely unaware I was doing it… until it was (entirely accurately) pointed out to me. If you can look at a problematic situation holistically and gain insights into why someone is acting the way he or she is, that can lead you to a constructive solution.
Get help when you need to – This is an easy step, but often neglected. If you work in an organization of any size, help is everywhere. Get perspective on a difficult employee from someone whose judgment you trust. This could be anyone: a Human Resources contact, a mentor, your own manager, a colleague. During my years in management I went to all of these people at different times to seek opinions when employee issues arose. It isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s sensible judgment. I found Human Resources especially helpful and made a point of establishing close working relationships with individuals – regardless of rank – who I felt were especially capable. I never for a moment regretted it.
Set clear measurable job objectives so it’s a matter of fact, not debate, whether or not your employees have reached their performance targets – I often write about the importance of objectives in the management process, but that’s only because I feel well-conceived targets are so valuable and so neglected. Why would you not want to have crystal-clear goals that you and your employees could refer to often to make sure they’re on track? It makes evaluating performance more concrete and less nebulous. When a problematic employee isn’t achieving goals, you have something totally tangible to discuss. I’d always rather argue data than opinion.
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Think in terms of assets and liabilities – An old friend of mine used to say this about her relationships with men: At the end of the day, is he an asset or a liability? If he’s an asset, keep him. If he’s a liability, let him go. While perhaps a tad oversimplified, this approach has applicability for management. Does a problematic employee still add real value to the organization? Some of the most brilliant people I managed were very difficult – uneven collaborators who liked to do things their own way. But the benefits they brought to the company far outweighed the problems they caused. So they were clearly assets. If on the other hand they became so disruptive that their accomplishments were far outweighed by the problems they caused, then they’d be liabilities, and it would be time to let them go. (Always working closely with Human Resources, of course, to be sure terminations were handled in the right way.) Is this a perfect, nuanced lens through which to view employee performance? Hardly. But can it help bring some clarity to the “fog of business”? I’d say yes.
There are no light switches you flip for immediate solutions to vexing employee problems. But certain fundamental approaches can make the difficult more routine, and can have relevance for employees at all levels – whether you’re managing on the shop floor or in the c-suite.