You do everything right. You plan your project well and get stakeholder sign-off. You plan for risk. You follow your checklists and double-check to be sure.
But you’ve got a difficult team member who constantly causes trouble.
You’ve got enough to worry about without this added to the mix.
You need to know how to handle this and stay focused on your project, rather than worrying about these more challenging behavior problems.
If you or others feel that the team member threatens or bullied, it’s an HR issue that needs to be escalated.
However, if the team member’s behavior is less serious and you need to find a way to work more productively without letting their behavior make you crazy or damage your project, follow these steps.
7 Steps for Dealing with a Difficult Team Member
1. Acknowledge the problem.
It may seem easiest to just ignore the problem. However, if you ignore it, the problem will continue and cause more damage to your team.
Take a step back and look at the situation. Are there factors to consider that may be causing the problem?
Several years ago, I worked with a team member who was constantly stressed and threatened to quit every few weeks. She was a critical resource that we couldn’t afford to lose. Plus, her outbursts stressed the team, too.
Upon closer inspection, I learned that many other projects were using her at the same time. She had conflicting priorities and little clear direction.
Once we fully understood the situation, we were able to address it. Rather than ignoring it and letting it get worse, the team found a solution that worked well for everyone. I write about how we handled it here.
But we first needed to understand what was going on.
In order to best address the problem, identify the behaviors, the impacts, and the full picture of the situation.
This not only helps you understand better. It will make it easier to address the problem with your difficult team member.
2. Be direct and talk about it.
Speak to your team member about the problem. Approach the conversation respectfully and do it privately.
Focus on the behavior. Don’t use labels or blame. For example, say “You’ve missed the last three due dates” rather than saying “you’re lazy and incompetent.”
Let the team member know the impact that it has on the project or the team. “When the design document isn’t delivered on time, the developer can’t start her work on schedule.” Or “when you shoot down everyone’s idea in the meeting, people become discouraged and don’t want to share.”
Listen to what the team member shares about the situation. Give them time to talk and use active listening skills.
You’ll gain insight into the difficult team member’s perspective and the problem. You may find it’s as simple as miscommunication regarding expectations. I once had a team member who was constantly late on deliverables, and once we talked, she shared that she didn’t understand the deadline fully. I realized that I needed to be more explicit and detailed in the request and what I needed from her. This helped ensure I got what I needed from her going forward.
There may be other factors that you weren’t aware of.
There could be family issues.
Or maybe the team member wasn’t even aware of the impact of his behavior.
4. Come up with a solution for the difficult team member.
Once you’ve had an initial discussion about the problem, come up with a solution.
Ask the team member if they have any ideas. Work together to come up with ways to fix the problem.
If they help craft the solution, they’ll have more buy-in and ownership for it.
5. Stay professional.
Don’t spread gossip.
Don’t take it personally.
Keep your calm.
6. Pay attention and follow up.
Once a plan is in place for a solution, track the situation to see if it’s improving.
You may do this by simply observing the team and watching to see if it’s improved, or actively discussing the situation with your team member.
If you do see improvement, let them know you appreciate it.
7. Know when to escalate.
You shouldn’t let the behavior go on long. If you don’t see any effort for improvement and it threatens your project, escalate.
There’s only so much you can do as a project manager if you don’t have formal a formal management role over a team member.
When you do escalate, be specific about the behavior. Rather than speaking in vague terms, use examples and tell about specific behaviors to illustrate your situation.
Rather than saying “John is always a jerk” or “Jane never gets her work done”, instead say “John repeatedly speaks disrespectfully to the team” and “Jane continues to miss deadlines and commitments she’s made to the team”.
This is clear and concrete.
Then give the boss more to go on, such as what you’ve done to try to remedy the situation and the risk involved if nothing changes.
Dealing with a difficult team member is never pleasant. But by following these 7 steps, you’ve got a plan you can follow to make it easier.
Have you had success in dealing with difficult team members? If so, share how you handled it. Your stories will help others handle the same tough situations.
Further recommended reading:
Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition
Perfect Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People: Hundreds of Ready-to-Use Phrases for Handling Conflict, Confrontations and Challenging Personalities (Perfect Phrases Series)