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Got troublesome staff? Five easy rules for making the manager’s job easier

Here are five easy rules that will make the job of managing difficult people a little easier—or at least make it go more smoothly.

They are outlined by Monica Wofford, MBA, CSP, principal of Contagious Companies, a leadership training company, and author of “Make Difficult People Disappear.”

Rule #1: Address problems consistently

Face the problem people. And don’t be ashamed about not wanting to deal with them, Wofford says. Google any people term such as “office drama queen” and literally millions of sites come up.

Letting people continue on with unacceptable behavior damages the office in two ways.

One is that it drives the good performers away. They get tired of working around an unpleasant person. They also resent having to pick up the slack while some dud is allowed to carry on. What reward is there for doing a top job when the ne’er-do-wells sit around and gripe and do nothing yet still get paid?

And people issues aside, letting difficult behavior continue can generate legal problems, because it sets a precedent that the behavior is acceptable.

Suppose the problem staffer is a white male who’s rude to everybody. The manager dreads confronting him and so ignores the issue to keep the peace. Then a good performer, a minority female whom the manager feels confident talking to, is disciplined for being rude in the same way. The office has just asked for a discrimination claim.

Rule #2: Don’t focus on poor performers

Don’t give the poor performers excessive time and attention. Address their problems and help them improve, but don’t coddle them and don’t make a big deal about it when they do something right.

Many a manager sits with a losing employee day after day in hopes of encouraging better performance, and when the loser finally gets it right, the manager goes overboard with the praise.

Nothing good comes of that. “The manager is rewarding the wrong behavior,” Wofford says.

Staffer Zero learns that making mistakes is what gets the positive attention. Worse, the good staff resent not getting recognition for their consistently good work while the poor performer gets accolades for getting it right once.

Don’t spend all the time with the poor performers, Wofford says. “Spend it with the ones who do well.” Then everybody learns that to win the manager’s favor, they have to do things the right way.

Rule #3: Respect privacy

Keep everybody’s business private. Don’t tell one staffer about an issue with another staffer.

That rule often gets broken by new managers who have been promoted from within, Wofford says.

The newly promoted manager has a problem with Staffer A and goes to Staffers B and C who are friends and former peers to ask for advice.

This can create a “gang-up” situation. Staffers B and C see no reason not to go to the problem staffer and try to solve the issue. And the logical response is why did the manager talk with them instead of addressing the issue directly? What could have been solved by a private conversation has just become a complex problem.

Along with that, talking with staff about management problems damages the boss’s credibility because staff expect their manager to be able to handle the office issues. They don’t respect a manager who doesn’t have the strength to do so.

Rule #4: Don’t jump into a fight

When a staffer gets emotional, don’t respond in kind.

Suppose a staffer, who is having a bad day, comes in complaining angrily about another staffer or about the office or even about the manager.

If the manager is also having a bad day, “the natural response is to pop right back,” Wofford says, and now the staffer has just succeeded in engaging the manager in a fight.

No matter how infuriating the comment, don’t take the bait. The best response is simply “allow me some time to think about this.”

That’s disarming, “because what a difficult person is looking for is a sparring partner,” Wofford explains. Stay disconnected, “and the enthusiasm wanes,” she says. That angry staffer has no choice but to focus the attention elsewhere.

Rule #5: Make boundaries official

Draw up a professional conduct policy for the office.

This sets boundaries the manager can enforce with nonperformance issues such as attitude and gossiping, Wofford says.

She recommends covering “all the difficult-to-measure behavioral problems.” Include the things that have come up in the past or that could come up, such as how to express anger, how to resolve conflicts with another staffer, how to criticize another staffer, and how to disagree with the boss respectfully.

“Be very specific about what to do in each situation,” she says. Don’t leave it at merely “act professionally.” Tell what people are supposed to say and do.

Wofford recommends having staff help draw up the policy. Talk with them about the types of situations that occur and ask for their suggestions on the proper conduct for each one.

If they help create the policy, they’ll support it. “People don’t argue with their own data,” Wofford says.

Without a policy, the manager has no basis for disciplining the vague and hard-to-describe behaviors that annoy any manager. But with it, there’s a solid discussion approach: “Staffer A, our professional conduct policy tells how to handle conflicts with coworkers. I need to talk with you about it, because yesterday you had an argument with a Staffer B in the reception area, and that is in clear violation of our policy.”

Being able to cite a policy takes any personal aspect out of it, Wofford says. “It makes everything objective and measurable.”

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