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How to Deal With Difficult Employees and Turn Them Into Team Players

If you came here looking for our advice on creating team players, you are most likely in the midst of one of two given scenarios: either a newly added member of your team displays a certain negative behavior and has trouble fitting in, or you have taken over someone else’s team and realized that there is an individual whose behavior is negatively impacting the team's morale.

The best case scenario is to get a new culture-fit employee who will start contributing to the system in no time, while the worst case scenario is having to handle a dreaded toxic coworker. However, most of the time you will be faced with “difficult employees” - employees who just need a little “push” to become valuable members of the team.

9 types of difficult employees and how to handle them

According to articles by Beth Miller and Andre Lavoie, there are 9 types of difficult employees which can be turned into team players if managed correctly.

The Victim

The Victim is the least accountable individual on the team, who denies any responsibility, claiming that whatever happened is not their fault. Excuses may vary from “I was given an unclear task,” to “it’s hot outside and the AC was on for only a couple of hours.”

How to deal with a Victim: As a manager, it is up to you to define accountability. Provide your team with clear guidelines on what is expected of them as a collective, and from each member individually. This approach is the most effective if you put it in writing and on display for everyone to see. By doing this, you are putting “the Victim” outside of their comfort zone: either they adapt to the obvious rules, or become cast out by the rest of the team.

The Territorial

Often edgy and aggressive, Territorials can shake the team foundation – and not in a good way. With a tendency to defend their territory, they will use “all weapons at their disposal” to protect their niche from anyone they think might be attacking them - or the quality of their work.

How to deal with a Territorial: When it comes to the Territorial, pay close attention to their attitude. If they care about how their behavior impacts the team's performance, then the aggression is probably a defense mechanism which can be removed through careful management and team building. If, on the other hand, they do not care about the team, it is time to remove them from the organization and allow them to focus on individual tasks. It is probably best for everyone.

The Pessimist

A new project just came in, and it seems like it will be a complete package: challenging, meaningful, fun, and profitable. Spirits are high, and everyone’s ready to go. And then you hear a voice in the back: “This is harder than we think, there is no way we can make it happen…” It is the same person who regularly ignores silver linings and only stares down into the darkness of the abyss. Apart from killing everyone’s buzz, these individuals (known as the Pessimists), also tend to strongly resist any change including new hires, policies, and processes.

How to deal with the Pessimist: Even though dealing with them can be tiring, the Pessimists can be very critical to the team dynamics. Why? Because they keep the rest of the team from losing their heads in the clouds. You can organize rare “negativity meetings” as a reality check in certain situations, or have weekly one-on-ones with your pessimist, as their input can point out things that can potentially go wrong. There is one thing to remember, however: these individuals are not suitable for leadership roles.

The (N)ever-present

Usually invisible during the day, and always absent when the going gets tough. You can recognize the (N)ever-present if the rest of the team starts asking: “What do they even do here? What is their contribution?” Other dead giveaways are - they take a lot of sick days, frequent coffee breaks outside the office, and detachment from team duties in general.

How to deal with the (N)ever-present: The first thing you need to know is that an individual usually becomes “(N)ever-present” when they start feeling dissatisfied with their job, duties or their team, so they might have decided that it is time for a career change, but decided not to tell you in case things do not work out. So, the first thing you need to do is to talk to them and understand their reasoning. Only when you know their background story, should you decide if they are a good fit for your existing team or not.

Disclaimer: If a new employee starts acting this way from the get-go, you probably did a poor job during recruitment and hired a slacker.

The Misfit

Misfits are new employees with “the perfect fit” resumes, who simply failed to adapt to the company’s culture or the team's dynamics. They were supposed to be leaders, but only give the bare minimum, while others pull their weight. In this case, two scenarios can occur (and none of them are beneficial): either the rest of the team get frustrated with the new colleague for having to pick up their slack, or they follow the new leader’s example and start slacking off themselves.

How to deal with the Misfit: This situation is most likely caused by pretenses (or misunderstandings) during the recruitment process. If the resume and the letters of recommendation check out, then your new employee is most likely unsatisfied with their current duties: maybe they feel that assigned tasks are below them, or that they cannot utilize their skills to their full potential. To turn the Misfit into a team player, have an honest discussion and find out what they consider to be the pros and cons of the job. As losing a recruit can be costly, redefine the Misfit’s position so they can fully utilize their strengths.

The Wiseguy

They are smart, they know what they’re doing, and they want everyone else to know just how clever they are. While they do their best to achieve the company’s goals, they usually tend to be rigid and arrogant towards other team members.

How to deal with the Wiseguy: Wiseguys are bright - so use that to your advantage. Give them an unusual task to analyze their impact on other team members. Make them note everything down, take positive as well as adverse effects into consideration, and let them draw their own conclusions. Simultaneously, encourage other members to be completely honest, as this will only work if it goes both ways. Finally, make them face the truth of their findings, and use it as a wake-up call. If they are brilliant as they claim to be, they will realize how detrimental their attitude is to the team's dynamics.

The Bootlicker

For a Bootlicker, keeping the boss happy is more important than work, results, or the rest of the team. Their reasoning is simple: the boss will not be too hard on the boss’s pet. This attitude will, however, cause dissatisfaction among other team members as they feel that the Bootlicker gets undeserved recognition. Even though this issue sounds trivial, it is your responsibility as a manager to put an end to it. At best, the Bootlicker will be excluded from the collective. At worst, the entire team will stop working and start bringing you coffee.

How to deal with the Bootlicker: Introduce a peer review system. If the Bootlicker, whose strategy was focusing on the happiness of an individual, suddenly finds themselves being judged by many others, they will have no other choice but to concentrate on the work at hand. If they are capable, they will soon start contributing to the team. Also, other members will welcome the attitude change.

The Gossiper

Sometimes beneficial, but mostly destructive, the constant “office gossip” can create serious tension within the team. Usually, the Gossiper is the one that’s starting and spreading rumors without thinking about potential consequences. An additional problem arises when the gossip revolves around employees’ personal lives. That is of particular importance in the professional contemporary world, where life-work balance plays a significant role in employee happiness.

How to deal with the Gossiper: Use the natural curiosity and chattiness of the Gossiper to your advantage and redirect their social tendencies. Give them projects that are based on creating interactions (like event planning or company celebration organizations), and watch them become valuable members of the team. Handling these types of projects become win-win situations: it will feed their need to talk about non-business topics, while bringing the team together.

The Narcissist

Narcissists are the exact opposite of team players and the closest thing you get to toxic coworkers: they do not care about common goals or team results, they do not collaborate - they only care about themselves and their egos. There are clear signs which can help you recognize a narcissist at the workplace. Even though experts took it upon themselves to provide us with tips on how to work with a narcissist, it is highly unlikely that you will be turning one into a full-fledged team player.

How to deal with the Narcissist: If an employee you are supposed to convert turns out to be a Narcissist, you will most likely be forced to remove them from the team - for the sake of the team. Even though the Narcissist is unlikely to change, this possibility does exist - but only if they deem it beneficial for themselves. The key is to equalize the desired change with the Narcissist’s success. This is the only way to motivate them to do anything.

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