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The coach: ‘What can I do about my incredibly difficult colleague?’

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Careers expert Matthew Turner advises an architect who feels drained by the attitude of one of the people he has to manage

I manage a number of people, and there is one who is incredibly difficult. Though bright, he never expels an ounce of effort more than he has to. He struggles to get along with anyone, is frequently argumentative and sometimes even downright rude. I am drained by it all. What should I do?

Matthew turner

Difficult people, aside from the obvious problems they create, are also annoyingly time-consuming. Their actions mean managers have to spend an inordinate amount of hours dealing with moans, gripes and disputes – valuable time that could be better spent otherwise.

Dealing with difficult employees involves confrontation, criticism and can be mentally exhausting. However, if you fail to tackle the problem head-on, it can easily grow into a far bigger beast.

It is really important to gather information, and try to be impartial. The chances are that you have had negative feedback from colleagues. Beware of taking things heard ‘on the grapevine’ as gospel. Speak with the employee in question and try to get to the root of why they are acting the way they are; this is your best chance of improving the situation. This kind of conversation tests your soft skills to the max. As no one likes to be challenged, your approach should be both supportive and non-accusatory. 

Taking the time to sit down and chat with the employee is crucial. It is a rare person who chooses to make themselves unhappy; their prickliness may be due to something quite understandable, but unrelated. You may uncover other underlying problems within the practice that you were not aware of. Maybe they have issues outside of work that are affecting their attitude, or it could be that there are personal conflicts between them and their colleagues. You won’t know until you ask, so make this your first step.

The aim should be to develop them, not to tell them off

If you have established that the employee is being difficult of their own volition (ie they ‘won’t do’ rather than ‘can’t do’) then it’s time to ‘lay down the law’. But be constructive; the aim should be to develop them, not to tell them off.

Detail the negative effects they are having on people around them and the practice, as well as their own career, and why this is not acceptable. At this point you should set out exactly what you expect them to do to turn things around. Be as specific as you can on the steps they need to take, agree real boundaries (for example, around being rude), and be clear on the implications for them should they fail to improve. 

Procedures and record-keeping are important. The type of difficult employee that regularly locks horns with peers or managers is the same type that will most likely put up a serious fight if things go pear-shaped. For this reason it is absolutely vital that you stick to your practice’s procedures. 

Documenting is the most important step. All key points regarding poor performance and/or attitude must be written down and kept on file. Log reported issues, minute meetings and be sure to date everything. If the time comes to terminate the contract and you have no record of the bad behaviour, you have little chance of it going smoothly.

Of course, this is not only your issue. However small your practice, whoever is responsible for HR should be very much drawn on for support. 

AJ coach Matthew Turner is an architect and careers consultant who runs the Building on Architecture consultancy. To contact him with your questions, tweet @TheAJcoach or email him in confidence at hello@buildingonarchitecture.com

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