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How To Manage A Difficult Employee

POWER INVITES CHALLENGE. When you place yourself in a position of authority, others are naturally encouraged to challenge that authority. Being challenged is a defining characteristic of being a leader. Being challenged as a leader is a good thing. But what happens when one of your team members begins to actually undermine your leadership?

Unless you’re a low-key despot, chances are you don’t derive pleasure from telling others what to do or by reprimanding them. That's one of the reasons it can feel hard to manage a team member who seems insistent on being "difficult". I've got a solution for you. Read on, friend.

What Not To Do

The worst thing you can do is lose your cool. It makes you look like you’ve lost control and it often invites further challenge. What's worse, it actually makes you seem easily manipulated by others. An equally bad response is to do nothing. You can’t simply ignore the disruptive issues and hope they go away. Failing to address the problem can cause the situation to fester and become worse. Over time, this unhappiness can end up spreading throughout your whole team and can be incredibly destructive. Being a leader means having an eye on the long term rapport of your entire team.

Leaders need to be intentional about shaping cultures that promote a healthy culture of upward dissent.

What is Dissent?

Kassing (1998) identified three types of dissent:

  1. Articulated dissent is when an employee vocalizes their disagreement or unhappiness with their supervisors or manager.

  2. Latent dissent involves an employee vocalizing their disagreement or unhappiness with the situation to their co-workers or others in the organization who can't have a direct impact on the situation.

  3. Displaced dissent is where an employee vocalizes their unhappiness with external entities like family, friends, social media, or even the press.

Latent dissent is a threat to organizational culture while displaced dissent is a threat to organizational reputation. Of these types, articulated dissent is the type that managers and leaders should cultivate within their teams. Articulated dissent can be done constructively as upward, open, and clear feedback, or destructively as complaining or exhibiting passive aggressive behaviors like withdrawal, absenteeism and retaliation.

Turning Destructive Dissent Into Constructive Dissent

Upward dissent can be beneficial to both the organization and the individuals involved because organizations can identify problems and issues early and employees who express upward dissent are more satisfied with the organization (Kassing 2002).

The best option to manage a team member who you feel is undermining your leadership is to have a direct and open conversation with them to listen and understand where they are coming from, offer feedback, and seek to change the dynamic. Listen for understanding and invite their input into problem-solving.

For example, is someone unhappy with how you’re managing project workflow? Fine, invite them to help find solutions. By sharing responsibility, you can help to demonstrate the complexity of the situation and thereby create a perspective shift for your team member. At the same time, it will often help them gain a new respect for what you do and a greater propensity for working together and being a team player. You might also find that their unique perspective and ability to critique adds to the development of new, better ways of operating as a team or business.

How Leaders Foster Constructive Dissent

  • Create a culture that demonstrates and values giving and receiving feedback openly

  • Invite critiques when sharing information and plans with your team

  • Prompt people to explain their rationale and ask follow-up questions

  • Make sure people know who will hear their feedback in the organization

Excellent leaders look for a variety of tools they can use based on the needs of those they impact. Fostering constructive dissent is a great strategy to keep in your toolkit as a leader. However, I typically don't recommend this technique when you have experienced repeated and/or pervasive insubordination from a team member. In that case, ensure you thoroughly document all incidents and involve HR for help!

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