Jim Hancocks: How to motivate ‘difficult’ members of staff

How do we define a ‘difficult’ member of staff you ask? This word, difficult, opens up a whole array of thoughts, images and synonyms as it is open to interpretation.

Difficult – problematic, challenging, demanding, testing, trying

Easy – stress-free, straightforward, effortless, painless, simple

But can we label people as difficult? Do employees set out to be difficult or do they get demotivated and end up being more of a challenge than their ‘easy’ counterparts?

Some would say, the solution to avoiding having difficult staff, is to recruit a different calibre of people from the start. To provide them with everything they need to get their job done, and then step out of their way to get on with it. However, if you have inherited challenging staff members then changes need to be implemented before the lack of motivation spreads to others in the team.

We need to consider why people are being ‘difficult’. Maybe the individual is at a stage in their career where they are feeling jaded, cynical and therefore complain about everything. Others may feel an entitlement to promotion, or other challenges, perhaps too early in their current role. This results in demotivation at the first obstacle and they stop doing their best work.

Most line managers ideally want the opposite of ‘difficult’, of course the preference is for easy to deal with, or motivated individuals or teams, who take pride in their work; take ownership of tasks, and are willing to go that extra mile.

Bad day in the office

However, everyone has an off day, or feels a little unmotivated or lacking in creative juices once in a while. This demeanour or state could be argued as being difficult at that particular moment in time, especially if a deadline has to be met, or a problem solved quickly. It is when a temporary slump has become chronic; when staff members are continually showing negative traits and low morale that it becomes a real concern and managing them becomes difficult.

Low morale needs to be halted so that it doesn’t spread like an epidemic across the team; throughout the rest of the business and possibly impacting on customer relations. Turning consistent clock-watchers and complainers into conscientious workers is no easy feat, so it is best that they don’t become those archetypes in the first place.

A difficult employee is in the eye of the beholder

We need to be aware of what is causing the demotivation. A ‘difficult employee’ could be misinterpreted as someone who is facing challenges in preforming their own tasks and as a result, unintentionally making working life more challenging for others in the workplace.

An employee or new starter, who doesn’t fully understand what their remit is or how to achieve their objectives, can be helped fairly easily. A choice of solutions may exist e.g. providing additional training or coaching, regular catch-ups with their line managers, or even buddying up with another more experienced employee could help and improve self-confidence.

Creating as open an environment as possible will help you to better understand your team members as individuals. Open communication is the key to appreciating reasons why an employee, who might usually be a good performer, is demonstrating a lack of focus of late.

Understand what has caused them to start underperforming. Are you aware of any work related disputes, which are renowned for causing high levels of stress and depletion in concentration? You stand a much better chance of understanding what is happening if you are engaged with people on an individual level.

Also consider, that a fall in motivation, may not have anything to do with the working environment, it could be a personal issue at home, or ill health.

Consider any employee who has lost interest and whose performance has slipped steadily downhill as to whether they may be in a rut. How long have they been doing the same role, tasks or challenges? Could you offer them a different role? A new project outside of their ‘normal’ role? Or even, an opportunity to work in a different team?

Managers have a lot to juggle, but staying ahead of these considerations is essential to being able to nip ‘demotivation’ in the bud.

At the end of the day, the causes of demotivation may be initially unclear but the effects are apparent: Their apathy becomes more noticeable, late for work, excessive gazing on their smartphone, low productivity, increasingly becoming distracted or a disruption to others.

This is when employees are more of a challenge to motivate. Both you and they urgently need a wakeup call, a jolt to the system to realise their worth (and self-worth) and to realign their strengths and abilities to the job. So how do you now motivate them?

How exactly do managers motivate their staff?

There are many theories and articles published out there on modern management, motivation, employee engagement, human behaviour and best practises for getting the best from your team. The most well-known amongst the motivation theories are:

Douglas McGregor’s X/Y Theory

McGregor’s ideas state that there are two clear approaches to managing people, the stick (X) or carrot (Y) approach.

Many managers that lean towards Theory X, generally get poor feedback. This authoritarian management style believes that the average person does not like work, responsibility or risk-taking and will do their best to shirk and avoid it. Therefore they must be controlled like a Marionette and threatened with punishment if they do not follow orders.

The theory states, that this type of manager generally issues deadlines and ultimatums. They tend to be poor listeners, appear detached, unconcerned about staff morale and think that barking orders is actually delegating.

Again, the theory states, that more progressive managers use Theory Y, which on the whole, produces better results, it allows room for people to seek responsibility, self-direction and development.

On reflection, are you ever guilty of displaying behaviours that are typical of autocratic managers, without ever really meaning to? Could these de-motivating actions be affecting your staff?

Although Douglas McGregor’s X/Y Theory is quite old now (1960s), there are still many managers out there that are more typical of Theory X. Or move towards it in challenging times.

William Ouchi’s – Theory Z

A chap called William Ouchi developed Theory Z. He was a professor of management at UCLA in Los Angeles, and a respected board member for several large American organisations.

Theory Z is a cocktail mixture of all the best parts from Theory Y and modern Japanese management. It places a significant amount of autonomy and responsibility with employees. It also presumes that they will have a strong loyalty and interest in team-working within the organisation. This is in keeping with general Japanese attitudes to work and may not be appropriate in other working cultures.

This theory also places more confidence on the attitude and responsibilities (internal) of the workforce, whereas McGregor’s X/Y theory is mainly focused on motivation (external) from the manager’s or organisation’s perspective.

Fredrick Herzberg – Two Factor Theory

Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory is definitely worth mentioning. A similar theory model that most people are familiar with is – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Both Herzberg’s and Maslow’s theories suggest that certain needs must be met for an employee to be motivated.

Herzberg made a thorough analysis of the job attitudes of 200 accountants and engineers (not a varied selection of career roles) by asking them to recall when they felt positive or negative at work and the reasons why.

Following on from his research, Herzberg suggested a two-step approach to understanding employee motivation and satisfaction:

Hygiene Factors

Firstly hygiene factors are mostly (external) based on the need to for organisations to avoid unpleasantness at work. If factors such as company policy, wages, supervision and job security are considered inadequate by employees, then they can cause dissatisfaction with work and demotivation.

Motivator Factors

Secondly, motivator factors are based on an employee’s need for personal growth, responsibility and stimulating work. When they exist, motivator factors actively create better job satisfaction. If they are effective, then they can motivate an individual to perform better.

What motivation tools can be used to get staff back on track?

In the long-term, motivation comes from within, not from outside. Most rewards such as pay increases, bonuses or advancement are only short term incentives and applicable to a certain type of work – watch Dan Pink explain the candle problem.

Engage with and inspire your ‘difficult’ staff members 

You can and should, like great leaders do, inspire your staff. Providing clear communication; a portrayal of what success looks like, linked with a sincere concern about them as individuals and their successes.

It you want an amazing team that is easy to manage, engaged, motivated, you need to…engage with them. Make time for a simple conversation.

Five things managers can do to help motivation levels:

  1. Engage 1:1 on a regular basis to report news before staff come to their own conclusions
  2. Seek ideas and opinions and really listen to what people have to say
  3. Provide staff with everything they need to get their job done
  4. Give them a purpose and set clear agreed objectives
  5. Keep staff challenged and trust them to do their work

Five things staff can do to motivate themselves:

  1. Avoid gossip but collaborate with colleagues to spark ideas and help each other
  2. Sit down for 10 minutes at the start of the day and make a realistic to-do list
  3. Change something each day in the daily routine, mix things up, if your role is becoming too tedious then speak to your line manager
  4. Tick off small targets first and graduate to the bigger ones
  5. Give self-praise for achievements big or small to keep positive

Every manager would dearly like to have an amazing team with no difficult staff members, no problem customers or obstacles but that just isn’t realistic, all of the time.

Perhaps we could all be considered difficult now and then, and that is simply human nature. Having engaging managers and inspirational leaders is one segment to motivating the workforce, but staff also need to develop their own self-awareness and use the tools available to motivate themselves.

Jim Hancocks is the Digital Marketing Executive at Righttrack Consultancy.

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