How to Deal with a Difficult Team Member
June 20, 2019
Critical Insight Group

Sooner or later we all have them. We don’t ever wish for them, but they show up nonetheless. Difficult people, non-performers, ‘challenging’ team members, whatever you want to call them. Whenever conflict or low performance arises, we are tempted to avoid it, procrastinate dealing with it, or ask someone else to resolve it for us. But the truth is that anytime we let conflict go – for whatever reason – it only gets worse. So we know we must deal with these people and their impact on the team. But how? (Yes, I get this question a lot.)

Any time we have difficulty with people we lead, we need to start a process, and fortunately that process is the same for nearly every situation. Before we get started, though, there are two questions we need to ask ourselves:

  • Can They Change? This deals with ability.
  • Will They Change? This deals with attitude.

Assume the answer to both of those questions is ‘yes’, (and if either one is ‘no’, we need to begin the process of moving them off the team), here are the steps in the process.

1. Meet with Them, Privately, ASAP to Discuss Their Behavior

Meet with the person privately and honestly and candidly level with them. Clearly, lay out what the issue is, giving specific tangible examples, of the undesirable actions or behavior. Don’t be vague, general or use only secondhand reports. Don’t attribute bad motives to them, because they will only become defensive. Assume that their motives are good, and that it’s just their behavior that is ineffective.

Be sure to explain how their actions are negatively affecting the organization, the team and you. (Never go into one of these meetings angry or frustrated, because you won’t be effective in that state of mind.) Specifically, be sure to explain:

  • What you’re seeing.
  • How it makes you (and others) feel.
  • How it’s impacting the team/organization.


2. Give Them Time to Respond

Ask their side of the story. Find out how they see the situation, what they were thinking, and other circumstances (such as personal life challenges or tragedy) that might temporarily be causing the unwanted behavior. Understanding what the person was/is thinking is key, because it’s our thinking that drives our behavior. And our ultimate goal is to change their thinking to permanently change their behavior.

Sometimes we find out the person ‘just wasn’t thinking’ at all, which is somewhat funny, but isn’t very helpful or an excuse for bad behavior. There may be several reasons that trigger the inappropriate behavior which must be determined. That’s why you don’t want to go in gun blazing. You might be wrong. My experience has been that:

  • 50% of the time people don’t realize there is a problem.
  • 30% of them realized there is a problem but don’t know how to solve it.
  • 20% realize there is a problem, but don’t want to solve it.

The bad news is that one out of five times the person doesn’t want a positive resolution. The good news is that 80% of the time they do!

3. Come to a Common Understanding

Next determine if you can come to a common understanding that the behavior is not effective (you don’t need to ‘prove that they are wrong’) and must be changed for the good or the organization, the team, and the individual. Give them time to think about it on their own outside the heat of the initial conversation, if necessary. But set a timeline. Give them a few days or a week, but not an indefinite period of time for them to come back to you.

Plan to meet again in a week to find out if they agree and understand the situation. If you can’t get them to understand and agree, then it’s your responsibility to resolve the situation by moving them out. In a sense, they have left you no choice.

4. Determine the Plan of Action, Including a Timeline

Here, only after you have agreement on the problem, do you focus on laying out the corrective plan of action. Once again, be specific. What behavior needs to change? Help them adjust their thinking as required to support that behavior change. Always include a deadline by which time there must be the agreed upon improvement. If there are steps that need to be complete, each of those should have a timeline associated with them as well. The plan needs to be in writing and accepted by the individual with their signature.

5. Validate the Value of the Person and Express Your Commitment to Help

Before you finish, let them know that you care about them and genuinely desire a positive resolution to the situation (assuming you do). Let them know you will help, but their ultimate success is in their hands not yours. Based upon experience, if the person falls in the 20%, there is a strong chance that you will ultimately have to let them go. If that time does come, ask yourself this question: “If I needed to hire a new person, knowing what I know now, would I hire this person?” If the answer ‘yes’, work to keep them in the organization and find a role that fits. If the answer is ‘no’, let them go. If the answer is maybe, reevaluate in three months.

Final Thought:

Working through this process is always important, even if it doesn’t have a positive outcome and the person must leave. The rest of the team is watching you and how you handle the situation. (And to think people don’t know there is a problem and waiting to see what you do about it is simply naive. Trust me. They always know, and they are always watching and wondering.) They want to know how you will treat them, if they ever get into that situation due to challenges in their life. And if they see you simply ‘cut the person loose’ right away. They will know that you’ll do the same thing to them and not trust you and hold back. But if they see you resolving the situation while treating the person with respect, regardless of their behavior, they’ll know they will get the same. And that builds trust.

Share This