We get calls from managers about this all the time.

A high performer in the company is behaving badly, and you have tried every technique in your management tool kit (and then some) to reign him in. Nothing seems to work.  Typically, this guy is critical to the success of the company, and you don’t want to fire him. But, his out of line, tasteless, and sometimes rude behavior ends up poisoning every meeting he attends and causes other employees to complain.

Although we are pulled in to work with this guy and change his behavior, we have found that an important part of our work includes empowering the managers with strategies that make a difference in working with difficult employees.

Here are 3 strategies:

1)  Figure out what you can control – You can not control your employees’ behavior.  Telling someone to stop behaving in a certain way, having long conversations explaining why he needs to stop the behavior, and threatening him to stop, does not work to change behavior.

All of us have a tendency to do this. We try to explain, cajole, beg, coerce and threaten to get someone stop what they are doing.  But the reality is – you cannot control someone else’s behavior.

Here is the good news.

You DO have control over your OWN behavior.

When your employee makes a rude comment about what you are wearing such as “your skirt looks too tight around your butt”, you have the control to immediately stop the conversation and tell the employee that that is an inappropriate comment. You also can tell him that you will not accept any comments about clothing or body parts.  When your employee insults people in a meeting, you have the power to end the meeting or ask the employee to leave. When you see him in the hall acting rude to others, you have the power to send him home until he can act civilly. Your own behavior is in your control. We help managers anticipate and think through scenarios, identify what they can control, and plan in advance how they will respond. This is a powerful management strategy.

2) Set Clear, Specific Boundaries – You have the authority to clearly, specifically and consistently define what behavior is okay and what is not in the workplace. You also have the authority to establish consequences when behavior is inappropriate.

In fact, an effective manager will communicate what behavior is acceptable and what is expected of the employee in a clear and specific way. She must then consistently reinforce what is expected, and follow through with consequences when behavior is inappropriate.  For example, you can establish a norm that in your meetings, no one will interrupt someone who is speaking. Each person will wait her turn to speak so everyone will get an opportunity to be heard.  If someone interrupts, you can stop the meeting, ask the person to stop interrupting, and make sure to let the other person finish. If the interrupting continues, you can ask the person to leave the meeting. This needs to be clear and consistent to change the behavior.

3) Reward New Behavior – It is essential to notice even the smallest change in behavior and reward it. Sometimes you need to dig deep to find an improvement, but when you do, make sure you tell the employee that he is doing a good job doing, and try to be as specific as you can. For example, “I really appreciate the way you responded to Amy’s idea in the meeting. That was very respectful and encouraging.” This kind of positive reinforcement goes a long way to promote long lasting behavioral change.

Managers often feel helpless when faced with difficult employee behavior. This is really hard, but we want you to know that you have more power in you think.

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