10 reasons why your difficult employee is making you crazy

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I’m sitting in a small conference room running our monthly staff meeting. It’s my second month in this position, and I’m struggling to motivate 17 burned out staff. I’m juggling way too many responsibilities and I’m working a ton of hours. I’m exhausted and I’m trying to be positive and discuss some of the changes that we’ll be making in the outpatient clinic that I direct. Before I was hired into this role, there was a particularly difficult employee who was reassigned into the department that I am now managing. Throughout the meeting, I was trying to share with my team why we were reorganizing some of our clinic offerings to open more availability for the most popular services. My challenging employee was taking copious notes, as she usually did. However, she wasn’t taking notes so that she could remember the content of the meeting. She was taking notes – almost verbatim – of what I said so that she could “make sure that you’re allowed to do that.” She was very clear that she was transcribing what I was saying and doing to review it with I don’t know who so that she could send me follow up emails about what I was “allowed” and “not allowed” to do. I was quite distracted by her endless note taking, particularly since I knew the purpose. Her behavior was not usual as it happened at almost every meeting. I could feel my face getting hot and my heart rate increasing. I was so angry and frustrated. I wanted to explode and tell her to stop writing notes. I felt vulnerable and fearful. I felt exposed and raw. I felt panicked internally but externally I just continued on with my staff meeting. This situation provided an opportunity to reflect on why this event was so triggering to me - the vulnerability, fear of exposure, or worry that I WAS doing something wrong (even though I knew intellectually that I wasn’t) poked holes in my confidence. Was this a trigger for me? Heck ya. Was this a uniquely challenging circumstance? You betcha. This strange behavior of hers felt almost normal in the context of the chaotic and toxic environment in which I worked.

 This was only the beginning of my arduous journey in this role. One of the most important things I did was to become SUPER clear on what bothered me and why, so that I could choose to respond in a balanced way.

It can be challenging to transition from a high achieving, individual contributor to a managerial role where you’re leading a team. This transition can be marked by crazy-making experiences as well as the opportunity the grow into an empowered leader. It is so important to allow yourself to reflect, be introspective, and consider WHY certain actions by your most difficult employees bug you.

 We all have our buttons. Every one of us has particular buttons that can be pushed by the right person in the right scenario. As a leader, it is a necessary part of your role to identify your “buttons” or “triggers” to understand what makes you more likely to react out of character. Often, when our buttons get pushed, we get a quick surge of strong emotion – frustration, anger, annoyance, irritability – and, if we’re not aware of why this is happening, then we’re unprepared to manage it successfully. As a leader – especially a new leader – your team’s eyes are always on you. You have to behave in ways that demonstrate your poise, tact, and unflappable demeanor – particularly when your buttons are being pushed by your staff, intentionally or unintentionally.

It’s so important to know yourself well, so that you can identify and anticipate when your buttons are being pushed. This allows you to have a response prepped so you won’t be taken off guard. When you’re reacting emotionally, you may respond in a way that you might regret later. Being a successful leader involves motivating and inspiring your team to achieve a vision. An emotionally reactive leader can be difficult to trust or to align with, which can make it almost impossible to achieve your goals. So, know your triggers, have a plan, and manage difficult scenarios smoothly.

 10 reasons why your difficult employee is making you crazy (i.e., your triggers)

1.)   You have never failed before and you’re at risk of failing

You’ve likely had a lot of success in your professional career. You don’t have much experience with failing and you’re not interested in getting any. Fear of failure can be a powerful trigger for any of us who are high achievers. It may cause us to plow ahead without stopping to listen to our team and to better understand their concerns. If your difficult employee is the voice of dissent on your team, this may trigger your fear of failure.

2.)   You’ve never had to explain yourself to someone who doesn’t appreciate or share your vision

As a successful individual contributor or subject matter expert in your previous roles, you likely didn’t have to continually explain yourself to someone who is repeatedly questioning your actions and your vision. You most likely operated independently and your opinion was valued. An employee that is often challenging your suggestions or debating the value of your vision may be a frustrating trigger for you. You may wonder why you have to continue to explain your vision over and over again, and the debate with this employee may feel demoralizing.

3.)   You’ve never been spoken to rudely before at work

Ahh…this is an interesting one. A difficult employee may feel comfortable speaking rudely to you or challenging your authority. You may be surprised when this first happens, as you’ve likely not experienced this type of behavior in the workplace before. If rude and disrespectful communication shocks you and triggers strong emotion, it is especially important to regain your composure before responding.

4.)   Your success is tied to your team’s success

This is a significant trigger. Until this point in your career, you’ve been solely responsible for your success or failure. It’s all been up to you. It’s something you’ve had almost complete control over. But, now, your success is intimately tied to the success of your team and the ability of your team to share your vision and execute goals. It can be a painful shift to go from being the creator of your own destiny into a role where your success requires the “buy in” and performance of multiple other people.

5.)   You see the world very differently

You and your difficult employee may have fundamental differences in how each of you views yourself, others, and the world. For example, let’s say you’re wired as an optimist, and your most difficult employee views every scenario in a pessimistic and negative way. This can be endlessly frustrating, as the way each of you perceives life is very different.

6.)   Your challenging employee has difficulty making decisions

You rely on your team to make wise decisions and to do so efficiently. You also need to rely on their ability to discern carefully when making decisions. There is an underlying trust that needs to be present. Ultimately, the decisions your difficult employee, and the rest of your team, makes will reflect on you. This requires you to trust their judgment. It may be a considerable trigger for you if you cannot trust their ability to make good decisions for the team or if they struggle to make any decision at all.

7.)   You can’t get a straight answer

This is a personal button of mine. It absolutely drives me crazy when I ask simple questions and receive convoluted and unclear responses. It causes me to distrust the person giving me the unclear answer and then I begin to wonder why they are giving me this messy response. If it’s a pattern for an employee, it will especially frustrate me. It requires me to dive a little deeper into WHY this is such a button for me. Is it a function of this employee’s difficulty communicating vs. the employee trying to evade my question? Do I automatically assume the employee is lying (which is often not the case)? It is so important to reflect on your own biases and how they impact your ability to lead and your ability to be neutral in perceiving the actions of your team.

8.)   You have to motivate someone else to accomplish your goal

Your skill set is likely strong in many areas; however, the ability to motivate others to accomplish a shared goal may not be part of it. It may be frustrating to you that you NEED to motivate others. You may wonder why they aren’t as passionate and as easily aligned with your goals?!

9.)   Your challenging employee doesn’t ask questions when he/she doesn’t understand

It can be a button when a member of your team doesn’t ask questions when he/she isn’t clear on what you’re requesting. Your challenging employee may interpret differently what you said and may not ask questions to clarify. This may result in he/she taking action in a way that doesn’t align with your plan. It can particularly frustrating when this happens repeatedly.

10.) Your challenging employee is anxious about change or risk averse

This is a common frustration for leaders. It might be a trigger when your challenging employee is particularly anxious about changing the status quo or is exceptionally risk averse. Your vision for your team may involve an innovative plan or changes to the “way things have always been.” When your difficult employee bucks change around every corner, it can be a trigger for you.

If the above list doesn’t resonate with you, complete the sentence prompts below to learn more about YOUR specific triggers.

It really pushes my buttons when ___.

It drives me crazy when _____ happens.

When someone says ____, it really bothers me.

I hate it when people do _______.

It makes me feel ______ when _____ happens.

Now that you have an idea of your triggers, do any of these triggers translate into your personal life? Are there examples of times when these things have happened in other contexts? Take a minute and think about your triggers outside of work. It’s likely that there are similar ways that your “buttons” get pushed at work and in your personal life.

Imagine a scenario when your buttons have been pushed, and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Who was involved?

  • How did you feel?

  • What was the outcome?

  • What was your role?

It’s important to remind yourself that you set the tone for your team. You are modeling the behavior that you want them to exhibit. It is essential to understand your triggers so that you can be aware when you’re having a reaction to your team member’s behavior. You want to feel prepared to respond to your frustrating employee with kindness, empathy, and non-judgment. Allow yourself to be curious about their reaction instead of immediately angry or frustrated.

Want more information on managing your difficult employee?

Download the free guide —> 3 Things To Do Before You Open Your Mouth” when dealing with your most difficult employee