Managing a High Performing Employee Who’s Difficult to Get Along With

difficult employee

I manage a four-person team. One of my staff members is incredibly hard to work with. She’s negative, combative, resistant to feedback and direction and doesn’t get along with the rest of the team. But her work is good, and so I don’t have grounds for letting her go. What’s the best way to approach managing a high performer who’s bad on “soft skills”? — Jamie, Wisconsin 
Well, first, let’s revisit that definition of “high performer.” While the product your staff member produces might be good, she not performing in the way that you need — far from it. She’s not a high performer if she’s chronically alienating her coworkers and making it hard for you to give her guidance about her work.
“Soft skills” like getting along with team members and being generally pleasant and professional aren’t an optional add-on. They’re as much a core part of what you need from a staff member as, say, strong writing or expertise with a particular software, and it’s just as reasonable — and, in fact, necessary — to make them part of the bar for the role. After all, an employee who is abrasive, unable to get along with others or otherwise difficult to work with can be as disruptive as one who falling short on “hard skills,” like missing deadlines or turning in shoddy work. And so it’s perfectly reasonable to treat these issues just like you would any other performance issue.
So it’s time for a serious conversation with your staff member — one in which you lay out your expectations not just for her work product but for how she approaches her work. Sit down for a talk. Be specific about where she’s falling short and what needs to change. For instance, you might explain that maintaining good relationships with other team members, a willingness to explore new ideas and being open to feedback are key requirements for performing in the role successfully. And you should also be direct about the possible consequences of not meeting your expectations in these areas — including that her behavior is jeopardizing her job — because it’s only fair that she understand how serious the problems are.
From there, continue to treat these issues the same way you would any other behavior that you asked a staff member to change. That means that you should offer positive feedback if you see an improvement (“I really appreciate how open you were to hearing my thoughts on this”) or address it in a progressively more serious manner if you don’t see the improvement you need (“We talked a few weeks ago about how I need you to be open to hearing feedback about your work, but you’ve continued to seem adversarial”).

However this plays out, the key is to lay out a clear and specific bar for the behavior you expect to see — both in your own mind and for your staff member.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of “How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” and “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results,” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, including hiring and firing.

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