How to Deal with Difficult Employees Behavior

When Victoria contacted me with the proposal to write this article, I thought:

Interesting, it may even be useful for others…

And then, as I read, I was surprised to find that most of the behaviors described sound familiar from stories from virtually every industry and business imaginable. From production halls to glass skyscappers. So I hope that reading helps you and inspires you as it helped and inspired me.


Understanding people and building a strong team out of a group of individualists is difficult and is the biggest challenge in any manager’s job. Especially in the sectors/ industries, which are characterized by a high level of responsibility and low willingness to change among team members.

I have spent the last few years managing different teams and have developed several effective methods of dealing with cases of people who are… (let’s say it nicely)… extremely stubborn in their attitudes. Below I also present diagnoses of some of the behaviours.

My list of nine problematic attitudes:

  1. It’s impossible. (But I haven’t checked yet)
  2. I’ve already done it. (So I will absolutely not do it the second time.)
  3. I can’t. (Even though I’ve never done it, I already know that I can’t.)
  4. We’ve always done this. (For twenty years. Why change something that works?)
  5. It’s okay. (Because I did it.)
  6. The customer/manager/colleague is bad. (This is their fault. I am perfect.)
  7. I have no data. (So I’ll just sit and wait at the expense of the project.)
  8. I don’t have it in the contract/job description. (And I don’t care that without this one element, the whole project makes no sense. I don’t get paid for it so I won’t do it.)
  9. It’s none of my business. (Besides, I coming here to work is a punishment.)

I don’t think I exhaust the list of attitudes that can be found among team members. However, I collected the most common ones.


First case. An employee who will not go beyond the usual and safe scheme of action.

This is the first challenge that any young manager will face. Managing an employee who has thirty years of experience and is considered an expert will be difficult, especially in situations where the same knowledge is required.

Often the employee will be either too lazy to do something different or too scared to take the risk. You must sense what is the case in your situation and act accordingly.

If it’s fear – it will help build a sense of security. Ensuring that in the event of failure, the manager will take all the consequences or even convincing him that he is following someone’s command and clearly emphasizing that it is the will of the supervisor.

If it’s laziness – you can try to solve a project problem into a challenge for the employee (most people like to prove – mainly to themselves – that they are the best at what they do). Most often, however, the situation is only resolved by a clear and hard request to exchange the problematic person for another specialist who wants more and who can do something beyond his own schemes.


The first solution that managers use is to get out of the position of strength: “you have to do it and I’m not interested that you have already done it once.” This is not the best approach, because it destroys any commitment and willingness to continue cooperation.

So what to do? First, identify possible causes. Assuming we’re not dealing with sheer laziness and aversion (which we’ve dealt with above), they’re probably:

  • Fear of exceeding the budget or deadline.
  • Reluctance to explain to the line manager why he is doing something a second time or just too long.
  • The workload with other projects, i.e. no time to introduce additional changes or corrections.

The third point is related to the organizational problem and is difficult to solve by the manager, but it is worth trying to negotiate with other managers to relieve this particular employee and give him more time on our project. It will probably fail, and then money can help. The promise of bonuses or an allowance for overtime work in most cases will motivate you and allow you to complete the project on time and in the shape expected by the client.

The first two points are related and the easiest to solve. An employee who is afraid should be calmed down and explain to him that you will inform his supervisor about additional work that he has to perform and you will find either an additional budget for him or a longer period, or both.

You don’t have an extra budget? The employee will not care. Inform the management board about additional works. You can’t? So take a bitter lesson on your chest, sign the loss with your face and focus on change management in your next project.


I have probably had hundreds of these interviews. I cannot, I cannot, I do not know how …

This attitude is most often represented by young specialists who are just starting to work in an independent position and show great fear of making a mistake.

A possible reason is also the pressure of time – the deadline is chasing, there is too much going on in the project – which makes the employee think that he cannot solve it because he did not have two hours of time for creative work.

I always had one answer – the question: Have you tried? Most often, the answer is No. The role of the manager is to help gain the necessary knowledge. Certainly, somewhere in the organization, there will be able to do a mentoring session passing on knowledge to a younger colleague.

If, on the other hand, the reason is the lack of time, it is worth it to find the time and really see what the person is working on.


The specialists have years of experience behind them. That is why they are specialists. But the experience goes hand in hand with a certain stiffness of mind…

What is characteristic of people using this argument is that they often lack understanding of what they are doing this project for.

Most often, our specialist simply does not understand why it is worth doing differently and explaining it, giving the reason, will bring nice results – it will activate hidden layers of creativity.

By the way – this attitude is very often created by the organizations themselves, rewarding the speed of work and repeatability of processes, which kill creativity.

On the one hand, it is understandable – repeatability increases profitability and reduces the number of errors, and allows for the introduction of systematic methods of quality control. But when you get an unusual order or a problem that requires an unconventional approach – it becomes counterproductive.


Some specialists do not accept opinion that their work is not great.

Excluding the obvious reason that employee simply does not want to make any changes to the project, it can be assumed that he feels very strong in what he is doing and that any criticism of his work is unacceptable.

If someone has heard for years that only he can take care of it and realized that no one understands what he is talking about – the trouble is ready. He will consider any attempt to undermine his solution as the incompetence of the other party and will not make any attempt at an alternative approach to the topic.

Solving this problem may be difficult, especially if you don’t have an expert specialising in the same thing. I also do not see the possibility that someone with less experience would be able to do it, because despite the fact that often a younger employee may have better ideas – the older one will not recognize his authority.

So if you don’t have someone with similar experience on hand, an external consultant may be a solution. Most often, for a relatively small amount of money, you can hire an external “expert by the hour” who will help pacify the recalcitrant employee and give him things to think about.

The most important thing is to break the belief that he is infallible and that no one can match him with experience or competence.


He will always find someone guilty. The colleague did not provide the guidelines, the project manager did not agree with the client, the client provided incorrect assumptions. But he is with no flaws.

Some employees excel at this type of behaviour, every time they are caught with a mistake or oversight. Sure, it can, and often does, the other side actually broke. But if we hear from the same employee again that it is not him, but someone else – it is statistically impossible.

It is possible that there was a fear of consequences (for various reasons, sometimes personal) and the best we can do is talk and explain (yes, over and over) that mistakes are not a bad thing as long as they are not repeated and fixed as quickly as possible how it’s possible.

After all, working under a lot of stress, with tight deadlines is not conducive to quality.

However, it is worth observing the employee carefully, because it is possible that the problem is not the excuse used, but his competencies.


Unfortunately, this is usually an excuse – a convenient explanation for the employee’s lack of interest in taking the initiative and taking responsibility. Therefore, it can be a signal that a specialist does not fit where he is, especially if he requires proactivity and a sense of responsibility for the process by all parties. “I have no data” means that it is worth getting interested in why this data is missing and try to get it for the sake of the project.

The key is to trace the source of the problem – did the one who was supposed to get the data really messed up, or did the one who was supposed to pass it on? The next steps depend on it.

The recipient gave the bodies, ignored the topic, didn’t care. If someone gets to the point where they don’t care, then unfortunately it can mean burnout or at least extreme frustration. Here there is a long and deep conversation with the employee about what and why happened and how he can be helped.

The sender gave the bodies, did not do so despite the requests, he gave the wrong ones, just said what he remembered at that moment. The answer to what to do in this case can be found in the text of the remaining points. Someone did not fulfil the task, so he either could not or did not want to, and most often he can be assigned to one of the other categories.


The bane of any manager. Sooner or later everyone hears that someone did not have something in the contract.

Misunderstandings happen everywhere and in almost every project we get to the point that someone didn’t have something in the contract. Sometimes he really didn’t. Sometimes he did not understand the scope of the job, and other times it is a convenient excuse for him.

However, the effect is always the same – the problem is not solved and the employee does not want to deal with it. That is why it is so important to prepare a good plan that you hand out (and then check that everyone has read it).

However, this is not a guarantee that this argument will not be raised. Activate the budget reserve and pay for the execution of this additional scope. You can struggle and try to convince yourself, but all you will achieve is a loss of energy and… spending a budget on talks and meetings that would get the job done. Pay, maybe you will negotiate something later. Draw conclusions and look for savings elsewhere.

But if this happens all the time with the same employee… cut him off.


Forget it, it’s a waste of time and energy struggling with an employee who should clearly change the company or at least the project.

You are responsible for the level of motivation and commitment of your team, but only up to a certain point. If, despite trying to establish a dialogue and reaching out, giving a chance, trying to communicate – this relationship still does not work, then report to the line manager and ask for a change of team member. If you are a direct superior yourself – consider releasing an employee for the labour market. Maybe brutally, but if it is not someone’s problem-solving problems, which he undertook to solve by signing the contract – then why continue such acquaintance?


  1. Provide a sense of security.
  2. Create a challenge.
  3. Create an additional budget. Just in case.
  4. Trust and show trust.
  5. Explain why we are doing something. Just.
  6. Know the right people.
  7. Ask questions and look for reasons.
  8. Make a good plan.
  9. Don’t force people. Cut them off.

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