Managing difficult or problem staff members: The measure of a manager

In this guest blog , Nick Pearce a team change and improvement specialist from Hamilton, New Zealand joins us to discuss the importance of managers facing up to conflict issues with problem staff. Nick is currently developing a team building and culture change programme with The Devil’s Advocate, using remedial methods based around constructive conflict and focal conflict theory.

Anyone can do that…

The true test of a manager is not how well they manage their good staff, but how well they manage the bad. The difficult, the troubled, the misguided or the just plain lost. Managers are employed to get the best out of all their people for the good of the organisation and managing the tough ones is where they earn their money. Managing the good ones is easy. Anyone can do that.

On the job studies conducted by myself and HR colleagues have tended to show that in small to medium enterprises (SME’s), nearly 0.5% (1 in every 200) staff are in a personal or professional space that suggests they need to be exited from the organisation. Staff who can not only de-stabilise teams but scare their colleagues, or pose a very real reputational threat to the organisation, or are corrupt or breaking the law in some way. We pussyfoot around this too much. Usually, there were opportunities to prevent things from getting this bad earlier, but a manager or managers somewhere along the way failed to act as they should.

There really are no easy ways to turn a difficult or problem staff member around. You have to be prepared for hard work, hard times and a hard nose. And an external change agent or influence can help. But all of the truly effective managers I have worked with have been proactive in identifying staff issues or problems and dealing with them with speed, integrity and honesty. Above all, the manager needs to be honest with themselves and confident in dealing with, and using, constructive conflict to get where they need to go.

It is worth learning everything you can about the dynamics of conflict – interpersonal conflict and intrapersonal (inner) conflict. It is a fear or lack of confidence in this area that in my view most holds managers back from doing the right thing with their staff. If you use the devil’s advocate role in team discussions, programme time for functional (goal and value focused) conflict in your meetings, you should find that constructive conflict, well managed, can lead to new levels of creativity, performance, and harmony in your teams.


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