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Handling Problem Behavior in the Workplace

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Have you ever met somebody that was more trouble than they were worth? Maybe it was an adventurous childhood friend that was always trying to convince you to go along with their mischievous plans (and always ended up getting the both of you caught). Maybe it was a person that you dated who made you jump through hoops from sun up to sundown (unless you’re in the circus, where this would be a very supportive relationship).

Whatever particular difficulty they project onto the people around them, the common thread is that their problems always seem to spill out onto others.

Now, these don’t necessarily have to be neuroses or even personal problems. In a working context in particular, the problems that difficult people spread to their co-workers are usually problems that they have with the company, the way things are run or some particular manager.

While it’s easy to terminate somebody who’s more trouble than they’re worth, things get a little more complicated when an employees skills and benefit to the company outweigh (or at least balance out) their personal difficulties.

When a malcontent employee is too valuable to give the old “heave ho,” it’s important to figure out a way to mitigate the damaging effect that they can have on the morale and engagement of your other employees. This is potentially the most damaging aspect of an employee that is constantly griping about the company or its policies.

One bad banana can rot the whole bunch and your high performing, rebellious employee can have  a lot of sway over the way that their co-workers view their job. This can be because their complaining gives voice to their own private concerns or simply because the troublesome employee is also quite good at their job, and thus, must know what they’re talking about.

Pretty much the only way to deal with such a stick situation is to face it head on.

Lets say that Jill has the skill, but is also a pill. While working late on a project with the rest of the team, she casts doubt on everything from the premise of the project to the way that you’re executing it to the selection in the snack machine. Before you know it, you have to sit down with the whole team and explain to them “the point” of what they’re doing and the reason it needs to be done in a particular way.

This is when you and Jill need to spill.

When you confront an employee like Jill, it’s important to be direct. First, ask them if they have any concerns with the way things are run or any particular procedure that they can’t stand. Hopefully this will get them to spill the beans as far as their discontent is concerned.

Now, no matter how frustrated you are with this person, the most important thing to do during this process is to listen to what they have to say. Some of their complaints might be totally legitimate and might even make things run more smoothly when addressed. Other complaints may be baseless and unnecessary.

The key is to stay objective and hear the employee out to the best of your ability.

Once you’ve heard their side of the story, it’s time for them to listen. Explain to them the damaging effects that their constant complaining and negativity is having on the rest of the staff. Explain to them how big of a pain they’re being. Explain to them that, while they might be skilled, the difficulties that they cause might outweigh their value to your company one day.

By establishing behavioral expectations for your problem employees in this way, you eliminate any ambiguity about what’s acceptable to say. While they may continue to think negatively of your company, chances are that they’ll be keeping that opinion to themselves.

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