Addition by subtraction: Types of difficult employees

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difficult employees

Over the 35 years of owning a practice we hired over 100 employees. They came in all sorts. Some fit well. Others did not. And some were difficult employees. Dealing with employees who were not a good match was not easy. Yet doing so had many positive effects for our organization. Here are some categories of employees that were challenging for me.

Emotional terrorists

If you manage enough people, you will eventually have an emotional terrorist on your staff. While they may have been adequate therapists with their clients, they were not kind to their fellow employees. I am defining an emotional terrorist as one who uses emotional reactions to scare, control, manipulate, or dominate others around them. Interestingly, in my experience, such persons usually do not see themselves as others do. But if you interview fellow colleagues and are able to get honest responses, the feedback is quite consistent. You will hear stories of how these colleagues are emotional, reactive, and do not adjust easily to situations that are not to their liking. From the observers point of view, they use their strong emotional reactions to try to get what they want. 

My mistakes

Early in my time as a manager I made the mistake of thinking that there must be a way to please such a person. I was trying to understand the logic in what the employee expressed. But I failed to see the manner in which my employee was affecting others. Furthermore I found that no matter how I tried, I would end up being perceived as offending, disappointing, or injuring. The strong emotional complaints or criticism would come my way no matter what I did. Even more frustrating, my attempts at understanding would be interpreted by that person as validating their opinion.

It was hard for me to say or demonstrate that “while I understand why you are unhappy, I do not agree that your unhappiness is 100% my fault, nor do I agree with the manner in which you are protesting.” I found that to even an attempt at such a nuance expression led to endless conversations without a satisfactory resolution. I was exhausted and the employee was not satisfied.

Negativity infused

Some were not so much emotional terrorists as they were just negative people. Sadly, they often believed they had good reasons for their negative views. After all, life had not treated them as they feel it should have. I did not necessarily disagree at the unfairness they pointed out. Yet I found it hard to handle when it inevitably got directed at me or at the organization I managed. I found that I often was not very successful in convincing them to have a more positive attitude, no matter how hard I tried. Additionally, the negativity could become pretty contagious. Everyone around them was brought down. When someone is having that negative affect, it may be time to have a conversation outlining your concerns about the way in which they are participating in your organization. 

Just not able to do the job

We have had times when we hired people either in a clinical role or a support staff role who, not long after the hiring and training process, we discovered were not able to do the job well enough to meet the minimal standards we had for that position. 

Warning signs would pop up. These clinicians would have  difficulty keeping clients and have a poor conceptualization of what to do when discussing a case in supervision. And eventually we had difficulty with the support staff wanting to give new cases to them. When those types of things showed up, we needed to alert the clinical supervisor and start to get a more complete picture of what was going on. We could be flexible if it seemed a temporary lapse. But when it persisted, we needed to take action and soon.

With support staff, when we saw that the learning curve was taking too long or over time the mistakes did not diminish or attitude improve, we needed move to more frequent and concrete discussions about what our expectations were and how to achieve what we were looking for. 

How to manage difficult employees

One possibility that we wanted to rule out was that no one had taught these employees how to deal with their distress without damaging those around them. Therefore we trained our managers to begin with simple instructions and see if that was going to work. In some cases it did. In other cases it did direct feedback was enough. I discuss next steps in the following posts:

The training we never had—Part 1: Hiring and firing

The training we never had—Part 2: Managing 

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