Volume 13 No. 1 SPRING 2012

Technical Difficulty
Identifying truly difficult employees is important for good management.

Can you think of a co-worker you might consider “difficult?” It’s not just you—it’s them.

Cynthia Kay Stevens, associate professor of management and organization at the Smith School, studied “difficult co-workers” and their behaviors in the workplace. She conducted interviews with working students in Smith’s part-time MBA program. Stevens and her co-author found that workers at various levels in public and private organizations had no problem pinpointing co-workers they could classify as “difficult” – in fact, only one individual surveyed could not identify a difficult co-worker, highlighting how common these disruptive people are in the workplace.

Survey participants reported difficult co-workers at every level of organizations – from administrative staff up through the CEO. A determining factor in labeling someone “difficult” is the strong consensus of that person’s disruptive behaviors among other workers within the organization, says Stevens. The key distinction that separates “difficult” co-workers from the merely “annoying” is their detrimental effect on job performance, whether their own or that of an entire unit.

“Unless you’ve worked with a truly difficult person, you don’t realize how stressful the situation can be,” says Stevens. “Nearly all those we interviewed pointed to the increased stress created by the difficult person – everything from morale problems, to an uncomfortable or tense work environment, to increased conflict among other members of the team. Of our study participants, 94 percent reported a tangible performance impact on their ability to do their own jobs, thanks to the difficult co-worker.”

And that’s exactly why managers should take action with difficult employees, says Stevens. Difficult employees create inefficiencies when others have to pick up their slack, create work-arounds, or become distracted by the situation. Performance declines can lead to lost revenue for the organization, damaged client relations and employee turnover.

So what’s the difference between a colleague who is simply irritating and one who is truly difficult?

  • Bad behavior: These people may use intimidation, sarcasm or personal attacks, or may just be oblivious to others, which can come across as very inconsiderate.
  • Poor communication style: “Difficulty” can stem from the person’s choice of communication media, such as using email to criticize someone else’s work. The difficult person may have a tendency to confuse others with their requests or advice. Or maybe it’s simply their style – too loud, too intrusive, too blunt. Often, difficult co-workers are also poor listeners.
  • Level of control: Micromanaging, constant monitoring and inflexibility are all signs of a difficult co-worker. The inverse in lack of control can also prove difficult – inadequate oversight of tasks, decisions or information.
  • Emotional displays: Difficult people may exhibit a hot temper and are prone to public outbursts. They often create drama in the workplace and frequently can be characterized as negative, dragging down the entire team.
  • Unethical: Some difficult co-workers really cross the line to unethical territory, even lying and blaming others for outcomes. They are looking out for themselves without regard for other team members.
  • Sub-par work quality: Difficult co-workers may be overwhelmed with simple tasks, make multiple excuses for why they can’t meet deadlines, or just find themselves unable to complete elements for which they are responsible.

For managers dealing with “difficult” employees, Stevens recommended meeting with team members to fully understand the level of the problem and document the consequences of the difficult co-worker’s behavior. That information can be used to confront the difficult person with constructive advice and solutions for improvement, and to set goals for which the employee can be held accountable. -CH

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