Question: One of my team members gets upset by another coworker that is particularly difficult to deal with. I want to lead her well, but I’m not sure how to help her. How do you deal with difficult team members?
Great question, Savannah.
I would first encourage the “difficult” team member’s leader (you or whoever it is) to evaluate that person’s performance. If the leader agrees this person is incompetent, untrustworthy or incapable of being a team player, that needs to be addressed.
Sanctioned incompetence breeds distrust. Why should anyone on the team show up on time, work hard, give their all, have a good attitude, close the deal, and build others up when there is someone on the team that doesn’t do any of those things and is treated and compensated the exact same as everyone else with no consequences? It’s very demotivating for your entire team.
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One person can infect the whole team like a cancer if it’s not taken care of. And on top of that, when the leader avoids the difficult elephant in the room, the team loses trust in them because they see that the leader doesn’t have the backbone to deal with it. It’s on the leader to have hard conversations and make tough decisions for the good of the team, the business and the customers. So that’s first.
But if you aren’t the leader and can’t directly influence the difficult person’s performance for some reason, then I would encourage you to coach your team member to focus on controlling what she can. She can’t control this difficult person, but she can control herself. If she allows herself to be sucked into the black hole of drama where she becomes distracted, flustered and unproductive, then that reflects poorly on her, and unfortunately, she’s the one that let it happen.
As soon as I read your question, I immediately thought of someone that I worked with at my very first job when I was 15 years old. I was a hostess at a nice local restaurant here in Brentwood and my coworker—we’ll call her Rosie—was a few years older and also a hostess with me.
I swear to this day, I believe that Rosie made it her life’s mission to make me miserable. And to make matters worse, as a veteran at this restaurant, Rosie was the one charged with training me by our manager. She would tell me to do something wrong just to set me up to fail, go out of her way to humiliate me, and talk to me like I was a complete idiot. One time she even yanked the menus out of my hand and called me stupid in front of a customer that I was about to take to their table! She was truly the worst.
I’ve always loved a good challenge though, so while Rosie made it her life’s mission to make me miserable, I made it my mission to not be.
I stayed positive even when on the inside I was fuming. I never let her see me sweat even when I was a nervous wreck. And with every hateful remark, I responded with kindness. Regardless of what she would do to me, or say to me, or say about me, I never let it affect me. (Or at least I didn’t let it show that it affected me!)
That’s not because I am a saint, mind you. It came more from a place of spite and “kill ‘em with kindness” than anything else—but it worked. Over time, my reputation on the team and among management became an impressive one of confidence and maturity, while Rosie’s true colors began to become more obvious to everyone else.
Unfortunately, we all have to deal with difficult people at one time or another in our lives. But the reality is that we can’t control them. We can’t control how people act or how they treat us. All that we can control is ourselves.
Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
And that’s true. In fact, no one can make you feel anything or do anything, without your consent.
The fact that you are even asking this question shows that you care about her and your team. Keep reminding your team member to focus on the one thing that she can control: herself. Encourage her to figure out what type of person she wants to be and then be that, regardless of the situation, people or drama that may try to turn her into someone else. If she can rise above the conflict, she will truly come out on top.