Managing awkward people

Ian Florance has 25 years experience managing people and working on human work behaviour.

‘Genuinely awkward people take up time non-productively and affect morale. They’re managers’ nightmares...but also a management Olympics, setting you problems that test your skills.’

So, what is Ian’s advice on managing awkward people?

Who are we talking about?

I don’t mean under-performers. Awkward people actively get in the way. They argue when they should get on with things.

Sometimes they’re ‘passive aggressors’ who agree to your face but go away and do exactly the opposite of what’s agreed.

One of the most awkward people I ever managed was a very bright sales person. He sent me ten page e-mails every week suggesting new ideas and criticising our products.

He had great ideas but I didn’t have time to read ten page e-mails, he wouldn’t take no for an answer and his job was to sell lots of things fast.

Put like that it seems obvious what to do: get it sorted out quickly.

But there are some things you need to do before inviting the awkward person into your office.....

Fact find and sort out your own attitudes

There are two key questions to ask yourself before you do anything:

‘What am I trying to do?'
The answer is simple but easily forgotten: you're trying to turn a problem person into a productive member of staff! The process should improve performance, not focus on getting your own back. It's easier to make an existing member of staff work better than go through a disciplinary procedure and start a recruitment drive.

There's another issue here. Many gifted workers are particularly awkward: they set their own rules. Managers ask themselves: ‘Is it worth the grief?' Sometimes the answer is ‘Yes'.

Sport provides good examples of this:

Ronaldo seems a cussedly difficult person but I suspect Sir Alex felt his performance for Manchester United was an acceptable price to pay. Awkward people can be good at their jobs!

Ask yourself, ‘Are they being/acting that way for perfectly good reasons?'

People usually have a reason for being awkward. It might be a bad reason, but it might be good one: they're being treated unfairly, for instance.

A crisis at home or health concerns that they find difficult to discuss may be affecting them. In essence, we naturally assume awkward people are to blame. Sometimes they're not. Be fair.

There are a couple of other points to consider before you do anything about particular awkward people:

Try to recruit less of them!
It sounds obvious but use of certain psychometric reports can help you increase the team players you recruit.

In fact the information assessments offer is invaluable in getting an accurate view of why anyone – a new recruit or an existing member of staff – is acting the way they are.

Colleagues and peers spot the difficult person before managers do, so keep your ear to the ground. You can spot developing problems and act quickly. But treat rumours and gossip carefully. They're rarely objective.

How to Address the Issue

Act quickly;
A problem avoided is a problem doubled. Putting off an issue sends two messages: the awkward person knows he or she has ‘got away with it' and will think they can get away with more; the awkward person's colleagues,who know there's a problem, will see you as weak. You can lose your staff's trust easily by avoiding difficult decisions.

Concentrate on events not adjectives.
When you start addressing the problem don't go in and say, ‘You're being difficult'. Focus on one event that everybody knows went wrong (so there's no argument) and discuss what happened. This is less confrontational. It's also better to pick one event or project rather than throw the kitchen sink at someone.

Use emotion but don't get angry:
You might be annoyed, upset or feel let down. Fine. You can express this without losing your temper. This is a golden rule: never lose your temper. It will solve nothing.

Beware of personal dislike:
You may dislike the awkward person. Don't let this cloud your judgement about whether their awkwardness is an expression of their personality or a perfectly understandable reaction to a bad situation.

Praise what they do well:
Praise motivates people. Awkwardness can stem from lack of it. Look up ‘Appreciative Enquiry‘ on Google: it's a technique that can transform organisations.

Set SMART targets and review:
You can't solve this sort of problem by one meeting and shaking hands. You need to follow up. Set review dates and SMART objectives (ones which are specific, measureable that have an end date).

Know when to go formal:
In some cases all your efforts will fail and a person's behaviour will impact your organisation unacceptably. You need formal disciplinary procedures.

Get advice:
If you have to go down that route don't put it off; do it properly. And if you've tried everything, don't treat this as a failure. It's a learning opportunity.

It's one of those strange facts that sometimes your most gifted and valuable people are exactly the ones who break the rules and cause problems. So, while this is a difficult area it'll hone your management skills more than any other.

Want immediate advice on how to manage a member of staff?

Try our ‘How to Manage’ insight.

This 10 minute psychometric assessment subtly quizes the candidate about themselves, then gives you direct and easy to follow suggestions on how to manage this particular person in the way they want to be managed, and to maximum effect.

You'll find out:

  • What motivates them personally and how to use this to achieve results
  • Management methods they will willingly respond to
  • How to communicate most effectively with them
  • Factors they will fight or will bring about the wrong results
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  • See example 'How to Manage' Report

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