How can I recognize bitchy employees

Bernd Geropp

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What do you think is the most frequently discussed topic in my coaching sessions with executives? In addition to the self-management of the manager, there are difficult employees.

Difficult employees:

Often it is only one or two members of the team who are classified as difficult. But what does that actually mean: difficult? What distinguishes a difficult employee?

The bosses then give a multitude of answers, e.g .: The difficult employee does not do what you want him to do. He is demotivated, he brings no results, he is lazy, cheeky, he intrigues or he spreads a bad mood.

Your own assessment

Well, all of that is the boss's assessment. This is how the employee, his results or his behavior affect him. So first of all, this is his personal opinion about the employee. It's the boss's point of view.

In principle - not only in your professional life - if you find someone difficult, it has to do primarily with you.

That's not to say that you always have to change because of it, or that it's just up to you. But it is at least beneficial to first question yourself and analyze exactly what is bothering you and why you believe that the employee is difficult.

Ask yourself the right questions!

So ask yourself questions like:

  • What exactly bothers me about the employee?
  • When does it bother me?
  • Is it his behavior? For example, the way he communicates, how he treats you, colleagues or customers?
  • Or does it not deliver the required performance?
  • Is it not achieving the required goals? Doesn't he follow the rules?
  • Does his misconduct always occur or only in certain situations?

A statement like

"The employee is cheeky."

is very general. That needs to be questioned in more detail.

So sit down in peace and, in such a case, write down in detail what bothers you, why it bothers you and when it occurs. Describe as specifically as possible and give precise examples.

  • When did the employee behave cheekily?
  • To whom?
  • How does this cheek express itself exactly?
  • Do you think others would call this behavior naughty too?
  • Is there a trigger for that?
  • What reason could there be for the behavior?

All of these questions will help you determine whether and how you can or should react to the disruptive behavior.

Today I want to introduce you to some types of difficult employees and give you tips on how to deal with them successfully - without losing your nerve, being frustrated, or even shrinking from working with the difficult employee.

The difficult employee who constantly disagrees!

Sometimes you have someone on your team who questions everything, or at least a lot, that you propose or represent. It is the employee who often takes an opposing position to you.

You present the new strategy A and he questions, takes your strategy apart and asks why strategy B is not being followed.

In the positive form of this type, we are actually not dealing with a difficult but with a strenuous employee. He is a very valuable employee.

Yes, he disagrees with you. He may even be cheeky, and he may even express his opinion in a way that you sometimes find inappropriate or presumptuous. In short: it is exhausting with him.

Exhausting does not necessarily mean difficult!

But he's committed and motivated. He is convinced of his opinion and that is why he does not hold back with his opinion. He dares to take the opposite position, even when he is alone - also towards the boss, i.e. you. He dares to give Contra because he is convinced that it serves the cause.

Having such an employee may be exhausting or annoying, but it is valuable. You don't want to be surrounded by yes-sayers, do you? Be grateful for those employees who hold up the mirror in front of you and can serve as a corrective for you.

It becomes difficult when this employee does not understand when the end is, when he has to accept that you have made a decision.

When does an exhausting employee become a difficult employee?

It becomes difficult when you now need and demand his support, for example for your strategy A, even though he endorsed strategy B. How he behaves makes the difference whether he is strenuous in a positive sense or difficult in a negative sense.

The negative expression of this type then insists on further discussion - up to and including unreasonable counter-arguments. He absolutely does not accept your final decision.

He doesn't understand or doesn't accept your role in the hierarchy. Often he does not want to be forced to do something - from his point of view - wrong. He's an exhausting employee who gets out of hand.

How to react correctly:

You should make it clear to such an employee that you value their commitment, opinion and arguments. You should ask him to continue to oppose you in the group, but only until you have made a decision.

Talk to him and make it clear to him that there is a time for discussion, a time for decision-making and a time after the decision.

If you as the boss have discussed, heard the arguments of your employees, formed such a comprehensive opinion and then made a decision, then you can expect the employee to accept your decision. You can expect him to respect your decision and not torpedo it, e.g. by constantly questioning it in front of others and thus undermining your authority.

You have the role of the boss and you have the ultimate decision. After all, you have to stand up for it and take responsibility.

The employee with a lack of critical ability

Type 2 of the difficult employee is characterized by the fact that he rejects any criticism of his person. If something goes wrong, it is always someone else's fault. Even if this employee has obviously made a mistake, he negates it with words such as:

"Yes, something went wrong, but it's not my fault because ..."

He denies any guilt. Even if his colleagues or you criticize him very cautiously, he pretends that this criticism is completely unjustified and that it is an attack on himself.

This lack of critical ability is usually the result of fear and low self-esteem.

How do you deal with such an employee?

If you want to achieve something with him - namely, insight - then you have to behave in such a way that he is not afraid of you. You have to be careful not to attack his low self-esteem or he will automatically close. Try to avoid anything that could unnecessarily undermine your self-esteem.

It is particularly important for an employee who does not have the ability to criticize that you follow the feedback rules one hundred percent. That doesn't mean you shouldn't criticize him - but what matters a lot to him is how you provide constructive feedback.

Never do it in public. Avoid exposing him to others. Only express criticism in private.

Show him that you value his person and his work. Explain to him that mistakes are allowed.

But also tell him that it is crucial to stand up for your mistakes, take responsibility, and learn from them - and that you expect him to think about them.

It's about trust!

But none of this is of any use if he doesn't trust you. Only then do you have the chance that he not only listens to your criticism, but also thinks about it and maybe, over time, comes to admitting incorrect behavior.

You can already see from my formulation: It takes time. The insight as well as the change in behavior.

Why? Well, on the one hand, you first have to gain the trust of your employee. Otherwise you won't even get to him. He's not really listening to you because he's in a defensive position with you. He only gives up if he has confidence in you.

And secondly, it takes time to reflect on yourself and take the courage to admit your own little mistakes. If he realizes that admitting mistakes doesn't automatically lead to negative consequences, then there is a good chance that over time he will change his behavior and become more capable of criticism.

The resigned employee

I have a certain image in mind when I think of this type of difficult co-worker. This is someone who reacts to every change or every new idea in the same way: he crosses his arms, leans back in his chair and says:

"That will not do!"


“We've tried that several times, you can forget. That doesn't work for us! "

If you then try to go into the idea or the change more, to discuss or explain it, sarcastic remarks are often made or, especially if you are new to the boss, your competence for the topic is denied or comments such as:

“Something new from up there again. We have only reorganized. In six months everything will be done differently anyway. "

All of this shows: As the boss, you cannot reach the employee. He seems unapologetic even to obviously conclusive arguments.

As the boss, you have to be careful. In the past, I often felt angry inside. The lack of insight, the resistance, sometimes even a certain kind of rebellion, frustrated me.


The question that should always be asked of such an employee is: Why? Why does the employee behave like this?

Please introduce yourself as an example:

There are employees who have undergone four organizational changes in their company in the last 3 years.

From the point of view of the employees, all these changes, which were so well announced by the top management, have brought nothing - apart from unnecessary work and increased administrative effort.

But not only that. No, the employees were also forced to listen to top management speeches, e.g. at works meetings. There was then rant about “synergy effects” and “service-oriented implementation of the structurally feasible gain in efficiency”.

Yes! You can understand that employees are frustrated and initially refuse to make any changes - even if the change itself actually makes sense.

Why are employees so frustrated?

It's not about something that went wrong. The point is not that a change or a new strategy has not brought the forecast result.

No, this is again about trust. In such a case, the trust of the employees was destroyed several times over the years.

They realize that you have been manipulated again and again. Now the employees are frustrated. Who can blame them for that. You have lost all motivation and confidence in statements or promises made by management because you have been disappointed too often.

“They do what you want up there anyway. We are not heard. They are only concerned with their own benefices. They don't care about us ... "

It is resistance out of resignation, but it is resistance that rarely comes across as combative. These frustrated employees were once motivated and now they live in the distant past and say to themselves:

"Everything was better before!"

How do you pick up such employees?

I'm sorry, but it doesn't usually go quickly. Because here, too, the first thing is that you have to build trust again. Trust in yourself. How do you do that?

  • Only promise what you will actually implement.
  • Do not make promises that you cannot keep, e.g. because it is beyond your control.
  • Admit your own mistakes.
  • Speak plainly and don't waste your employees' time on idle manager chatter.
  • Start with small things and implement them 100%. Show that you are not a babbler and that you stand up for what you say. Don't be a flag in the wind.

When you have gradually built up the trust of your employees in you, then you have the chance to get the constantly negative thinking employees out of your frustration swamp.

An example

For example, if you keep hearing from one of your employees in a meeting that something is not working and cannot be implemented for various reasons, then you can try to break his mindset. If he has faith in you, he may allow you to do so to a certain extent. For example, do the following:

Tell him:

“OK, I understand that there are a number of counter-arguments for our change project.
Nevertheless, please give me 3 arguments that speak in favor of it. "

This practice can sometimes lead to the employee opening up and rethinking the matter. Try it out.

Other reasons for underperformance

Of course there are other reasons why an employee is resigned and frustrated and may not go along with them.

If this is the case, you should always try to find out the “why”. Why does an employee not do what he should?

In the event of underperformance or incorrect behavior, always ask:

The employee cannot or does not want to?

If an employee doesn't do his or her job properly, some bosses believe that they just have to educate the employee, train him. So you send him on a course.

But that only helps if the employee wants it too. It is possible that the employee could very well complete a task, i.e. has the ability to do so - only he does not want to. From the outside, however, it can look as if he cannot, because if someone does not want to, he is understandably quickly accused of refusing to work. So it may be more beneficial for the employee to behave in such a way that it looks like he can't.

Therefore, as the boss, you should first understand exactly why it is: Is it not possible or not wanting.

Even if someone does not want to, that does not automatically mean refusal to work. Your employee is not automatically lazy or malicious because of this.

Why does someone not want to do their job?

External circumstances can leave someone frustrated or depressed. For example, your employee has just separated from his long-term partner or a close relative has died or one of the children has been hospitalized with leukemia and he does not know what to do next, or, or, or.

What is the reason? You can only find out if your employee trusts you and tells you in private what it is really about. That means you have to have built up the trust beforehand in order to be able to ask him and hope for an honest answer. Because only then can you help him. Only then can you see together what the options are.

If your employee is in the middle of a separation phase or is processing a death in the family, then they probably have no head for work. Then it might only deliver 50% of its usual performance.

Arrange a grace period!

In such a case, agree on a kind of grace period with him. Tell him that it will be okay for him to slow down a little in the next 2 months and that you will reduce the demands on him temporarily, but that you expect him to perform at full capacity again after the close season.

Important: Don't just say that. In these 2 months of closed time you stand behind your employees. You protect him - especially from your bosses or hostility from employees.

There are also other understandable reasons for insufficient commitment. For example, your employee does not actually want to work in a certain team, the project he is working on bores him to death or he is not convinced of the purpose of his job. Therefore he brings underperformance. Then it is time to talk to him about it. Maybe to convince him of the sense of the job. Maybe also to negotiate compromises with him in the form:

“Ok, your current project A is not the most interesting. You get bored of doing this type of project over and over again.

But this project has to be brought to a successful conclusion. This is your job for the next 2 weeks. I expect full performance from you.

And then I will hand over project B to you, which - as I have heard from you - really appeals to you and which you would like to work on.I Agree?"

If you as the boss need help ...

If someone is extremely “Down”, frustrated for a long time and without drive, then there may also be other reasons that are completely beyond your control, for example a mental illness such as burnout, alcohol addiction or depression.

If you suspect that your employee has this condition, you should consult someone who is familiar with it.

Diagnosing mental illness is something for a specialist.

Therefore, if this happens, speak to someone outside the company who can support and advise you on how to act. For example, talk to a specialist doctor or get help from the professional association.


Other types of difficult employees ...

For tips and advice on dealing with other types of difficult employees, click here:
Difficult Employees and How to Handle Them Successfully - Part 2


How to turn a low performer into a high performer!

Here you get FREE access to the Recording of my keynote speech on the subject:

"How to get difficult employees on board!"

The inspirational quote

"If you want to gain the approval and trust of your employees, you have to respect their self-image and their self-esteem."

Hartmut Laufer


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