Managing employees is a real balancing act; you never stop juggling various personalities and workflows. And while most team members contribute positively to the organization, there are times when managers have to deal with employees exhibiting negative attitudes. If left unchecked, one person’s bad vibes can bring the whole team down

According to Harvard Business Review, “30% to 40% of the variability in team morale, performance, and critical organizational behaviors (both good and bad) can be explained by what managers and leaders do.” That’s right: managers play a key role in how their team functions and the research backs it up.

It all starts with bosses.

In this article, we’ll explore the importance of addressing those difficult employee behaviors and fostering a culture of accountability and growth. We’ll also offer a few helpful strategies — like performance conversations, feedback, and employee engagement practices — that can mitigate any issues before they poison the well. 

First things first: what do we mean by “difficult?” 

Difficult employees can exhibit a range of traits and behaviors that make them challenging to manage. This includes resistance to change, low motivation, lack of teamwork, constant negativity, and disruptive behavior. The sooner you identify these traits, the more effective your management will be.  

Managing disengaged employees with negative attitudes is a must for maintaining a healthy workplace environment. According to a recent McKinsey study, these “disruptors” can have a detrimental impact on team dynamics — not to mention the overall company culture. Unaddressed problems can lead to decreased productivity and increased turnover, and feed a general sense of dissatisfaction among other employees. 

So, what’s making your employee difficult to deal with? 

In order to combat employee disengagement and difficulties in the workplace, you need to understand the root causes of a bad attitude. These underlying factors include: 

  • Lack of recognition and appreciation: Imagine working hard, day after day, without a single “thank you.” A lack of authentic, continuous recognition is a recipe for discontent. 
  • Poor communication from management: When higher-ups are too mysterious, employees can feel lost and disconnected. 
  • Insufficient training and development opportunities: Without prospects for growth, your people may become stagnant or uninterested in their roles. 
  • Workload and stress: Juggling too many responsibilities can lead to burnout, frustration, and — you guessed it — a negative attitude. 
  • A mismatch between job expectations and reality: If the job description doesn’t match the daily grind, disappointment can brew fast
  • Manager incompetencies: That’s right: it’s not always about what the employee is doing wrong. New or inexperienced managers can also impact how the employee engages with work, especially if the manager hasn’t been equipped with leadership competencies.

How to identify difficult employees

Sometimes it can be like trying to spot a needle in a haystack, but there are a few telltale signs that a team member is disengaging from their work.  

  • They complain all the time. Ever met that colleague who seems to have a rain cloud following them around? They’re the ones who grumble about everything, from the latest assignment to the office coffee. While it’s totally okay to voice concerns, constant negativity can be a red flag.  
    Studies show that employees who constantly complain and exhibit negative behavior can have a significant impact on workplace morale and the global GDP; a survey by Gallup found that disengaged employees cost the world $8.8 trillion in lost productivity. Yikes. 
  • They’re resistant to change. Change is a constant in the workplace, but some employees can’t help but dig their heels in at every turn. They resist new processes, technologies, or even small adjustments to their daily routine. Spotting this hostility early is one way to ensure smoother transitions
  • They’re less productive. Productivity slumps can be a major sign that something’s amiss. When an employee consistently fails to meet deadlines or deliver quality work, it’s time to take notice! In fact, Forbes reports that disengaged employees are 60% more likely to make errors at work. The impact on productivity is real. 
  • They’re isolated from the team. Maybe your team is chatty and collaborative, but there’s that one person who’s always MIA. They avoid team meetings, skip lunch gatherings, and generally steer clear of social interactions. Loneliness at work is a significant problem around the world, and can lead to disengagement and general gloominess.  

It may involve playing detective, but remember that identifying difficult employees is the first step toward creating a happier, more harmonious workplace for everyone.

Engagement + performance – How employee engagement and performance make the perfect double act 

How do difficult employees impact team dynamics and workplace culture?

Now that you can identify the behavioral indicators, let’s delve into the ripple effect. Here are 3 ways these challenging employees can impact your team and workplace culture. 

  1. Team morale goes down the tube. Like a bad cold that spreads through the office, when one team member constantly complains or resists change, it can affect the group at large. Research from the University of Warwick suggests that happy employees are 12% more productive — so tackling negativity can be hugely helpful for your team’s overall mood and efficiency. 
  1. They dial up the office drama. Difficult employees can be like magnets for workplace conflicts. Their negative attitude or refusal to adapt can lead to clashes with colleagues and, in some cases, escalate tensions. CCP Global found that workplace conflicts can cost US companies up to 2.8 hours per week per employee in lost productivity and $359 billion annually. That’s precious time (and money!) down the drain. 
  1. Collaboration and creativity take a hit. A cohesive team fosters innovation — but when a challenging employee isolates themselves or sows discord, it stifles collaboration and can hinder creative progress. Diverse teams that collaborate well are more innovative and better at problem-solving. Difficult employees can disrupt this synergy. 

Keep an eye out for behavioral indicators like constant complaints, resistance to change, reduced productivity, and isolation. By doing so, managers can spot difficult employees early on. Addressing these challenges helps nurture a positive workplace culture and maximizes productivity for the entire team.

What are some strategies for managing difficult employees?

Open and honest communication is the best way to turn attitudes into assets. Once you’ve laid the groundwork, you can step up your game with performance feedback and coaching techniques that inspire a positive change in their behavior.  

When tackling a performance conversation with a difficult employee, keep the following must-haves in mind: 

1. Clear expectations and examples 

Set the stage by communicating your expectations clearly. Let your employees know what behavior you consider acceptable and what’s not going to fly — this can cut down on any confusion in the future. Offer specific examples of the employee’s problematic behavior, rather than vague observations about their personality (which can come off as an attack).  

2. Active listening 

Employee visibility is critical to engagement, so be the ear they need. Give them a chance to express themselves and really listen. They could be struggling with work-life balance or dealing with issues in another department. Be patient and have empathy for their situation. Sometimes, all your people need is to feel heard and understood.  

3. Constructive feedback 

Offer feedback that’s immediately actionable and focused on improvement. Avoid the blame game and stick to solutions — what will they try to do differently? What will you try to do differently? You should work together to come up with the best way to move forward.  

4. Regular follow-ups 

Don’t forget to follow up with your difficult employee as their behavior (hopefully!) improves. Schedule regular performance reviews to discuss their progress, goals, and areas for continued improvement. The more involved you are in their development, the more seriously they’ll take the process. 

5. Goal setting 

Set clear, achievable goals that align with both individual and team objectives. When establishing these OKRs, make sure employees understand their role in the bigger picture and how important they are to the organization as a whole. 

“Any question we ask of that team member, we’ve got to ask ourselves. . . if my effect is low, or negative, or glass-is-half-empty, that is actually going to strongly affect the mental state of my team.” 

Leigh Thompson, Kellogg Insight

Here’s where the Human Success Platform comes in.

A platform like our Human Success suite can be your secret weapon when it comes to managing bad attitudes. It allows you to stay on top of employee performance with integrated tracking and feedback tools, including engagement insights, trend analytics, and visibility Pass-ups. It helps managers listen, understand, and respond to issues with efficiency and empathy.  

Our Human Success Platform also lets managers keep track of employee progress in real-time and ensure that their SMART goals measure up with the company’s objectives. No more guessing games! 

Maybe it’s also time to leverage a learning management platform?  

We’ve already discussed the ways that difficult employees are disengaged from their work. Using a learning management platform (LMS) like Learn365 can streamline how you measure employee engagement and help even the trickiest team members thrive.  

When employees are engaged, they are more likely to collaborate, innovate, and go the extra mile. This impacts the bottom line in a big way: Gallup research finds that highly engaged teams are 21% more profitable. And guess what? Engaged employees are also happier employees, with much better attitudes.  

Here’s why it’s a win-win for everyone involved: 

  • Personalized training and development plans: With Learn365, managers can customize learning experiences to individual styles and help employees develop the skills they need to excel in their roles.  
  • Tailored courses for skill gaps and attitude shifts: Learn365 offers courses that target attitude adjustments. Sometimes, a little learning can go a long way in shifting perspectives. 
  • Flexible learning approaches to address specific needs: Learn365 recognizes that everyone learns differently. Provide various learning methods to cater to diverse learners. 

Best of all, Learn365 seamlessly integrates with Microsoft Teams, cultivating a social learning culture that encourages difficult employees to engage with and be motivated by their colleagues.

Why measure learner engagement? – The importance of measuring learner engagement 

Whether we like it or not, wrangling with difficult employees is simply par for the course for managers and HR professionals. But here’s the scoop: taking negative attitudes and disengagement by the horns can transform your workplace into a thriving hub of positivity and peak performance. 

Tools like Learn365, Engage365, and Perform365 make it a breeze to keep tabs on your team, offer timely feedback, dish out some well-deserved recognition, and serve up personalized learning experiences. 

Don’t just “deal with” difficult employees; instead, guide them to greatness.