How to Effectively Engage a Difficult Employee

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As the saying goes, “Everyone is a critic.” But people who don’t understand how to communicate criticism constructively can sound harsh, hurt team morale, and dampen creativity. When the rest of the team can’t see through that scathing criticism, everyone begins to think of that person as “the critic” without saying anything nice or adding anything positive. One thing I’ve learned is that this person’s negative communication style and energy often doesn’t align with their well-intentioned intentions.

When faced with a critic, you can either stoke the fire or put it out. While the critic’s actions are his own, we play a role through our reaction. Are you shutting down and further alienating the person? Or do you involve them, listen to their concerns and move forward together?

There are very few situations that cannot be won if we can withdraw from our emotions, analyze objectively and approach people with empathy. The critic may not be comfortable working with at first, but they may say something worth hearing, or they may just need a little support and guidance to communicate more effectively. If we can defuse the critic, not only will we be able to achieve our goals for the project, meeting, or workshop, but we’ll leave someone better off than we found them.

Also see: 3 ways to deal with a negative co-worker in the office

Who is the critic?

The first step is identification. We need to recognize that a critic is in our midst in order to address their behavior and create a more productive dynamic. The critic can have many reasons for his actions, but what makes him a critic is the way he expresses himself in the workplace. They can shoot down ideas, disrupt meetings, and generally focus on why we “can’t do” things. But that’s not their whole personality — often they do it because they don’t feel needed, their talents are being ignored, or they’re unsure how to positively communicate serious concerns.

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We must remember to have empathy for everyone. We don’t know what a person is thinking or going through at any given time. In order to turn this perceived negative into something positive, we must proceed with empathy when it comes to addressing the critic’s criticism.

Related: 5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Dealing with a Negative Team Member

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When someone behaves like a critic it is assumed that they are simply unhappy, but this is not always the case. There are many reasons why someone might be a critic, and each underlying cause needs to be handled differently. Before stepping in to fix everything, be patient, observe the situation and find out why The critic acts like this.

The critic could be someone who fears change – “If we change our strategies, will I still be needed?” They may not yet believe in the company’s processes and have difficulty trusting those responsible. Conversely, they may have genuine and valuable concerns but are not effective communicators.

You must understand what you are dealing with before deciding how to trade. Is this someone who is insecure and afraid of change? Is this someone we need to work with to build trust? Or is this someone seeing something the rest of us are blind to? Once you understand the underlying causes, you can create an action plan. Hasty action will only aggravate the situation.

See also: How to turn difficult employees into team players

Hire the critic

When it’s time to intervene, put aside your judgment and any bruised ego from a critic’s contempt and focus on how best to defuse the situation. We have to be objective: How do I get to the root of this person’s behavior?

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If you are afraid of change:

  • Validate their value to your business and ask them to trust the process. Assure them you’re building something together, and that they are in the room because they are experts and have added value.

When they want to feel important:

  • Give them something to own. Make them a team leader or assign them a specific research project to bring back to the group. You can also ask them to delve deeply into one of their concerns—they will either resolve the problem they are raising or find that it isn’t a problem after all. With these tactics, you empower the critic and hold him accountable to investigate the concerns he is so willing to raise.

If you have legitimate concerns:

  • Talk to them about how their behavior affects the other people in the room to give them an alternative script to use when voicing their concerns. Make them part of the definition of the solution.

If nothing else works:

  • I’ve only used this approach three times so far. If someone is so unprofessional that they are willing to tear down everyone and everything in their wake, you may need to take the “nuclear” approach. Pull the person aside and give them a chance to leave: “It’s clear that you’re extremely frustrating to be here. You can leave if you want.” I’ve never had anyone approach me about this, but when given the opportunity, they are often roused from their anger and can see the severity of their behavior. The decision to stay or go is now theirs and they can engage with fewer interruptions.
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No matter what type of critic you’re dealing with, if you lead with empathy and meet the critic where they are, you can disrupt the dynamic so that all parties feel heard and are ready to pursue more positive outcomes.

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