The 5 types of problem employees (and how to manage them)


As a change manager, there are some common ‘problem employees’ I’ve encountered in every single project I’ve worked in.

An inherent part of my role is delivering (often unfavourable) messages that challenge the status quo. Some people are on board, but most are not. Challenges arise when employees are unwilling to accept that change is afoot. Their objective is to maintain equilibrium within their little bubble – and more often than not, that leads to problem behaviour. In no particular order, here’s my list of the five types of problem employees you’ll frequently encounter, along with some tips on how to manage them.

1.  The Gossip Monger

Did you know as many as 20 per cent of employees engage in gossip, and up to three hours each work week is spent hearing, seeing and talking gossip?

I’ve recognised a pattern as to the type of problem employees who initiate and are consistently in the nucleus of these gossip sessions. Gossipers think they know what’s happening in the business, are vocal in their opinions and enthusiastically solicit the views of others in hopes of garnering support for their crusade or to add fuel to the fire.

Eliminating gossip is near-impossible. Instead, accept that employees will gossip. Use it to improve clarity on what constitutes acceptable behaviour and expected standards. Leverage your (or your project director, project manager, project sponsor etc) ‘star power’ to demonstrate ideal behaviours.

Solution: Have a S.P.O.T – single point of truth, and use it well.

Select your channel (e.g. project blog, wikipage) and direct everybody to this source. Develop one-page cheat sheets for the project’s spokespeople so they’re all singing from the same hymn book. I have ‘talking points’ for multiple stakeholders: a high-level one for executives and board members, more detailed commentary for middle-managers, and one that delves headfirst into the nitty gritty of employee impacts – these are just one part of the arsenal I equip my alliance of change advocates. Ensure your advocates are peppered throughout the business – influence and magnetism does not discriminate by title or seniority.

Have integrity, be open and transparent, and you will build trust. In short, put yourself (and the project) beyond reproach. The more employees that observe and comment on the way you roll, the more likely they are to follow your lead. Over time, the majority will realise who is credible and who isn’t.

2.  The Grinch

Have you noticed when you’re dealing with a pessimist, negative nelly or all round kill-joy, you’re susceptible to getting a bit grumpy yourself? I’m sure we can all reflect on someone fitting this description: uninterested, disengaged, blatantly doesn’t want to be there, does the bare minimum and their utmost concern is taking home a pay check.

Problem employees in this category generally have argumentative personalities, which might be attributed to being unfulfilled at work or home. Regardless of the driver, a strategy I return to time and time again is to kill them with kindness. Clichéd, yes. But it works wonders.

Liberally praise them when they do a good job, no matter how trivial, and let the negativity wash over you without leaving a mark. (Side note: Well-built mental muscles act like a barricade against negativity, check out a previous post on building resilience here). Oh, and a mega-watt smile is one of the most disarming tactics you have at your disposal.

Solution: When you smile, the world smiles back.

Did you know smiling activates neural messaging that benefits health and happiness levels? Professor Ulf Dimberg’s experiment at Uppsala University, Sweden, found when you smile at someone, it causes them to reciprocate by returning the smile, even when both parties are using fake smiles. Professor Ruth Campbell at University College, London, attributes this instant mirroring reaction to the brain’s mirror neuron. We can’t help it; it’s hard wired into our biological programming. “In a way, the person automatically enacts the expression they see,” she says.

As with any stakeholder, endeavour to unearth the reason for their unhappiness. Ask how you can help. Communicate and listen. Make them feel heard and recognise their contributions. I assure you, the difference in their demeanor will be remarkable.

3  The Slacker

Gee, slackers have been the bane of my existence since group assignments in my golden university days (cue shuddering and cold sweats). Nothing has changed in the corporate world. We’ve all encountered these problem employees. Maybe they’re lazy, maybe they’re incompetent… heck, maybe they’re both.

Lacking motivation and drive, they spend most of the day on non-work activities such as mindless chatter or unnecessary ‘busy’ work. I recall a particular slacker who spent hours formatting and reformatting a document which was for internal project use only. My natural instinct was to go over their head and reassign their job to someone more capable. However, all they required was help structuring their work. Intense fear of appearing foolish culminated in their hesitancy to ask.

Solution: Help them set goals 

Work with them – or highlight this to their manager – to set small achievable goals. Strive to align these goals to their interests and strengths. One by one these minor accomplishments will snowball into something greater. This gradually builds their confidence and will (hopefully) move them out of Slackerville for good.

4.  The Intimidator

Overbearing and controlling, it’s even more destructive when the intimidator is a senior stakeholder. Intimidating personalities lower down the rungs can be managed somewhat easily through one-on-one engagement or raising the issue with their manager.

But what do you do when it’s senior problem employees railroading your meeting? Do they expect you to either A) perform a miracle or B) read their mind? The intimidator often causes meeting participants to abandon their views and show support for them. This is driven by fear of making a career-limiting move.

Solution: Be one step ahead of them.

In this instance, I’ve held a pre-meeting with the stakeholder in question to clarify expected outcomes and detail what I need them to do in session. Talking points are appreciated if it’s perceived as assisting to take yet another item off their already crowded plate. Respectfully request the intimidator to withhold their opinion until others have given theirs to avoid artificially swaying the discussion.

A round-robin sharing format is a useful tactic. Start at the seat furthest to the intimidator to ensure their opinion comes towards the end. If you’ve (temporarily) lost control and they just won’t get off their soap box, stand up, paraphrase what you heard and write it down on the whiteboard for all to see. It sounds counter-intuitive, but perhaps why they keep harping on is because they don’t feel heard. By doing this, they’re reassured they have been.

Has the intimidator started a vicious cycle of whinging about problems? Ask them to suggest a solution. If they don’t have one, note an action to discuss further at a later point, and steer the meeting back to its objective.

5.  The Sniper

Ouch, what’s that searing pain in my back? Yep, it’s a knife. How tragic is this: nine out of 10 employees experience backstabbing in the workplace, according to organisational psychologist Dr Dennis Reina. I’m a great believer in nipping this in the bud by going straight to the offending source. Most sniper attacks stem from low self-esteem or fear of the unknown.

I’d say something of a similar flavour to, “If you have a problem, I’d like to resolve it now, as we need to work together to be productive. So, let’s jointly identify the issues so history doesn’t repeat itself”. Note: A private meeting with their manager to show the sniper evidence in an objective and calm manner might be required if the attacks continue.

Solution: Build up your protections. 

Given the deplorable statistic above, the best defense against these problem employees is to have a mitigation strategy prepared in advance. Determine the influential stakeholders in the business and establish productive relationships with them. Understand their objectives and actively identify opportunities to assist in achieving them. Ensure the success and small wins of your project are visible – at C-suite, middle management and front line levels. These influencers should regard you as trustworthy, professional and capable.

If you apply the above, when the sniper initiates actions against you, their fictitious claims won’t be given any airtime. Even if the problem isn’t resolved, let these influencers know you are taking action and solicit their advice. A sniper will have a hard time to cast you in a bad light if there’s a powerful coalition in place supporting you.

Do you have more ‘problem employees’ to add to the list? Share your tried and true tactics for managing them below.

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Tasman McManis
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Tasman McManis

Thanks Friska a great article with plenty of useful and practical advice.

Nasir Akbari
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Nasir Akbari

Great article Friska Wirya and also the fun names gave me a laugh.

Wally Basel
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Wally Basel

Great article Friska. Always a topic of discussion and how to overcome the problem employees or stakeholders. Everyone goes to work for different reason. Trying to get them on the same page to achieve the one outcome is the challenge.
Thanks
Wally

Nyree fiddes
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Nyree fiddes

Great article. Spot on!

Michele
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Michele

I am currently working with two colleagues with four of these traits which only surfaced when I was promoted to a new position the company developed. This is a topic I have brought to the attention of my Manager who has dismissed these colleagues rudeness as “them being busy and even he gets like that when he’s busy” and that “he isn’t into holding peoples hands” and “that he only wants to come to work and do his job and go home again”. I read your article a few weeks ago when it was published and have been trying to… Read more »

More on HRM

The 5 types of problem employees (and how to manage them)


As a change manager, there are some common ‘problem employees’ I’ve encountered in every single project I’ve worked in.

An inherent part of my role is delivering (often unfavourable) messages that challenge the status quo. Some people are on board, but most are not. Challenges arise when employees are unwilling to accept that change is afoot. Their objective is to maintain equilibrium within their little bubble – and more often than not, that leads to problem behaviour. In no particular order, here’s my list of the five types of problem employees you’ll frequently encounter, along with some tips on how to manage them.

1.  The Gossip Monger

Did you know as many as 20 per cent of employees engage in gossip, and up to three hours each work week is spent hearing, seeing and talking gossip?

I’ve recognised a pattern as to the type of problem employees who initiate and are consistently in the nucleus of these gossip sessions. Gossipers think they know what’s happening in the business, are vocal in their opinions and enthusiastically solicit the views of others in hopes of garnering support for their crusade or to add fuel to the fire.

Eliminating gossip is near-impossible. Instead, accept that employees will gossip. Use it to improve clarity on what constitutes acceptable behaviour and expected standards. Leverage your (or your project director, project manager, project sponsor etc) ‘star power’ to demonstrate ideal behaviours.

Solution: Have a S.P.O.T – single point of truth, and use it well.

Select your channel (e.g. project blog, wikipage) and direct everybody to this source. Develop one-page cheat sheets for the project’s spokespeople so they’re all singing from the same hymn book. I have ‘talking points’ for multiple stakeholders: a high-level one for executives and board members, more detailed commentary for middle-managers, and one that delves headfirst into the nitty gritty of employee impacts – these are just one part of the arsenal I equip my alliance of change advocates. Ensure your advocates are peppered throughout the business – influence and magnetism does not discriminate by title or seniority.

Have integrity, be open and transparent, and you will build trust. In short, put yourself (and the project) beyond reproach. The more employees that observe and comment on the way you roll, the more likely they are to follow your lead. Over time, the majority will realise who is credible and who isn’t.

2.  The Grinch

Have you noticed when you’re dealing with a pessimist, negative nelly or all round kill-joy, you’re susceptible to getting a bit grumpy yourself? I’m sure we can all reflect on someone fitting this description: uninterested, disengaged, blatantly doesn’t want to be there, does the bare minimum and their utmost concern is taking home a pay check.

Problem employees in this category generally have argumentative personalities, which might be attributed to being unfulfilled at work or home. Regardless of the driver, a strategy I return to time and time again is to kill them with kindness. Clichéd, yes. But it works wonders.

Liberally praise them when they do a good job, no matter how trivial, and let the negativity wash over you without leaving a mark. (Side note: Well-built mental muscles act like a barricade against negativity, check out a previous post on building resilience here). Oh, and a mega-watt smile is one of the most disarming tactics you have at your disposal.

Solution: When you smile, the world smiles back.

Did you know smiling activates neural messaging that benefits health and happiness levels? Professor Ulf Dimberg’s experiment at Uppsala University, Sweden, found when you smile at someone, it causes them to reciprocate by returning the smile, even when both parties are using fake smiles. Professor Ruth Campbell at University College, London, attributes this instant mirroring reaction to the brain’s mirror neuron. We can’t help it; it’s hard wired into our biological programming. “In a way, the person automatically enacts the expression they see,” she says.

As with any stakeholder, endeavour to unearth the reason for their unhappiness. Ask how you can help. Communicate and listen. Make them feel heard and recognise their contributions. I assure you, the difference in their demeanor will be remarkable.

3  The Slacker

Gee, slackers have been the bane of my existence since group assignments in my golden university days (cue shuddering and cold sweats). Nothing has changed in the corporate world. We’ve all encountered these problem employees. Maybe they’re lazy, maybe they’re incompetent… heck, maybe they’re both.

Lacking motivation and drive, they spend most of the day on non-work activities such as mindless chatter or unnecessary ‘busy’ work. I recall a particular slacker who spent hours formatting and reformatting a document which was for internal project use only. My natural instinct was to go over their head and reassign their job to someone more capable. However, all they required was help structuring their work. Intense fear of appearing foolish culminated in their hesitancy to ask.

Solution: Help them set goals 

Work with them – or highlight this to their manager – to set small achievable goals. Strive to align these goals to their interests and strengths. One by one these minor accomplishments will snowball into something greater. This gradually builds their confidence and will (hopefully) move them out of Slackerville for good.

4.  The Intimidator

Overbearing and controlling, it’s even more destructive when the intimidator is a senior stakeholder. Intimidating personalities lower down the rungs can be managed somewhat easily through one-on-one engagement or raising the issue with their manager.

But what do you do when it’s senior problem employees railroading your meeting? Do they expect you to either A) perform a miracle or B) read their mind? The intimidator often causes meeting participants to abandon their views and show support for them. This is driven by fear of making a career-limiting move.

Solution: Be one step ahead of them.

In this instance, I’ve held a pre-meeting with the stakeholder in question to clarify expected outcomes and detail what I need them to do in session. Talking points are appreciated if it’s perceived as assisting to take yet another item off their already crowded plate. Respectfully request the intimidator to withhold their opinion until others have given theirs to avoid artificially swaying the discussion.

A round-robin sharing format is a useful tactic. Start at the seat furthest to the intimidator to ensure their opinion comes towards the end. If you’ve (temporarily) lost control and they just won’t get off their soap box, stand up, paraphrase what you heard and write it down on the whiteboard for all to see. It sounds counter-intuitive, but perhaps why they keep harping on is because they don’t feel heard. By doing this, they’re reassured they have been.

Has the intimidator started a vicious cycle of whinging about problems? Ask them to suggest a solution. If they don’t have one, note an action to discuss further at a later point, and steer the meeting back to its objective.

5.  The Sniper

Ouch, what’s that searing pain in my back? Yep, it’s a knife. How tragic is this: nine out of 10 employees experience backstabbing in the workplace, according to organisational psychologist Dr Dennis Reina. I’m a great believer in nipping this in the bud by going straight to the offending source. Most sniper attacks stem from low self-esteem or fear of the unknown.

I’d say something of a similar flavour to, “If you have a problem, I’d like to resolve it now, as we need to work together to be productive. So, let’s jointly identify the issues so history doesn’t repeat itself”. Note: A private meeting with their manager to show the sniper evidence in an objective and calm manner might be required if the attacks continue.

Solution: Build up your protections. 

Given the deplorable statistic above, the best defense against these problem employees is to have a mitigation strategy prepared in advance. Determine the influential stakeholders in the business and establish productive relationships with them. Understand their objectives and actively identify opportunities to assist in achieving them. Ensure the success and small wins of your project are visible – at C-suite, middle management and front line levels. These influencers should regard you as trustworthy, professional and capable.

If you apply the above, when the sniper initiates actions against you, their fictitious claims won’t be given any airtime. Even if the problem isn’t resolved, let these influencers know you are taking action and solicit their advice. A sniper will have a hard time to cast you in a bad light if there’s a powerful coalition in place supporting you.

Do you have more ‘problem employees’ to add to the list? Share your tried and true tactics for managing them below.

11
Leave a reply

avatar
100000
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Tasman McManis
Guest
Tasman McManis

Thanks Friska a great article with plenty of useful and practical advice.

Nasir Akbari
Guest
Nasir Akbari

Great article Friska Wirya and also the fun names gave me a laugh.

Wally Basel
Guest
Wally Basel

Great article Friska. Always a topic of discussion and how to overcome the problem employees or stakeholders. Everyone goes to work for different reason. Trying to get them on the same page to achieve the one outcome is the challenge.
Thanks
Wally

Nyree fiddes
Guest
Nyree fiddes

Great article. Spot on!

Michele
Guest
Michele

I am currently working with two colleagues with four of these traits which only surfaced when I was promoted to a new position the company developed. This is a topic I have brought to the attention of my Manager who has dismissed these colleagues rudeness as “them being busy and even he gets like that when he’s busy” and that “he isn’t into holding peoples hands” and “that he only wants to come to work and do his job and go home again”. I read your article a few weeks ago when it was published and have been trying to… Read more »

More on HRM