How To Manage Difficult But Productive People At Work

Vartika Kashyap
The Helm
Published in
7 min readJun 6, 2022


A couple of years ago, John gave me many sleepless nights.

Who was John?

He joined my team as a fresher marketing executive. He was young, zealous, and talented. However, he was not an easy person to work with (for colleagues) or manage (for me).

The reason why I added “productive” to the title is that there are people whose demeanor and behavior are not as normal as most other people in the workplace.

However, such people are also talented individuals who are assets to any organization and worth investing in.

Yes, not all skilled people are easy to manage, including John. So, what made him such a challenging prospect to handle for his team, especially me?

Outstanding work ethic aside, John’s erratic, moody, and arrogant behavior with colleagues was a grave cause of concern for us.

He was walking a thin line and as a manager, I had to tell him clearly about the problems he was causing in the workplace. At the same time, I also had to appreciate him for his good performance and make him realize how he can be one of the most valuable assets for our company.

Do you find yourself in the same situation? Do you also have a couple of high-performers who are not exactly easy to deal with?

I have a few suggestions for you, which can help you tackle them in a way that lets them continue to shine in their roles without becoming a nuisance to others.

7 Rules For Smartly Managing Talented But Difficult Employees

1. Make them aware

Yes, the employee is creating some sort of trouble, but are they conscious of it? It’s easy for everyone to think they are doing it intentionally. However, they may be completely unaware of their disruptive conduct at work. In John’s case, I figured out that he carried this attitude outside of work too. Such behavior had become natural to him and he did not know that some of his actions were upsetting some people in the office.

Managers should schedule a one-on-one meeting with them and explain how some of their actions (body language, choice of words, tone of voice, conduct) are affecting coworkers as well as the work environment. Unless they are made aware of their mistakes, you cannot expect them to make earnest efforts to change their behavior.

2. Understand where the problem lies

It’s easy to label an employee as problematic or difficult to work with. However, I believe that it’s important to understand the root cause of the erratic behavior of employees at work. It could be that they are facing serious problems in their personal lives, which is affecting their behavior elsewhere. I don’t think that anyone goes to the office planning to create problems at work.

Stat Fact: A study shows that there’s a 21% increase in the number of high performers when employers support the well-being of their employees.

We hired these people because we believed they would be a great fit for our team. It’s our responsibility to understand what makes them behave in a certain way at work. Sometimes, their personal lives are screwed up or it could also be that they are uncomfortable in the workplace environment. Other times, the employee is simply too difficult to be tolerated, though such cases are few and far between.

As a manager, you should leave no stone unturned to identify the root cause and offer potential solutions.

3. Document problematic behavior

Managers need to document problematic behavior or poor performance whenever they notice it. Detailed documentation is always important to present fact-based evaluations to employees, so they cannot deny it. Also, documentation promotes transparency and unbiased assessment of the individual’s conduct in the workplace.

While documenting, managers should be as descriptive as possible. You should mention the date and place of a particular incident when the employee’s conduct or demeanor was unacceptable and led to conflicts and a negative work environment. In cases when it’s necessary, solid documentation also helps to build a case for termination.

4. Communicate expectations

You need to set and communicate the organization’s expectations from your employees. This includes your difficult-to-manage people too. If managers are unclear about communicating expectations, it can lead to an employee continuing with their erratic, self-willed ways, which will create more problems for everyone involved.

Stat fact: According to research, poor communication is responsible for 70% of corporate errors.

You must let them know what you want from them in terms of performance and workplace conduct. Jot down a detailed plan of action with a realistic timeline. This will enable you to measure your employee’s progress and how much they have improved during a particular time. Without micromanaging, you can use a powerful team collaboration tool to check-in, share feedback, and stay connected with your employees.

5. Set specific consequences

Managers should set clear, specific consequences if the particular employee in question fails to show any improvement in their problematic behavior at the workplace. If they are not aware of the consequences then it’s likely that your improvement plan will be doomed for failure. Therefore, let the employee know the specific repercussions of not making progress during a particular time.

There should be a fear of backlash in the employee’s mind in case they fail to follow a defined code of conduct at the workplace. Some examples of consequences can be — a formal warning in writing, not being considered eligible for promotions, bonuses, and other perks. Again, in rare cases, it could also include the termination of their work contract.

Employees are least likely to change their behavior for the better unless they know that their repetitive actions (and reactions) will affect them negatively.

6. Monitor progress

Once you’ve set clear expectations along with consequences to your employees, it’s time for you to set back and monitor their progress. Do not expect them to show significant progress straightaway; give them some time as it’s not easy for individuals to forgo their old behavioral patterns quickly.

As mentioned earlier in the article, you would need to closely analyze how they’re progressing without micromanaging. If they do not show any signs of improvement then you should intervene in time. After the predefined time period of your plan has ended, you should evaluate the employee’s performance during this phase and discuss (improvement or failure to progress) with them.

7. Give clear feedback

Managers should give clear, precise feedback to difficult employees. If you have noticed significant improvement on their part compared to past behavior, tell them. If you have noticed some problems are still there and their behavior was below-par at times, state them in no uncertain terms.

The timing of your feedback is equally important as the accuracy of it. Give feedback regularly. Do not wait for quarterly or mid-year feedback, and make it a two-way street. Encourage your employees to speak up and voice their concerns, which are preventing them from making expected progress.

At the same time, you should also appreciate them for showing noticeable improvement and guide them when things are going the wrong way.


Difficult but productive people present a different set of challenges to managers. You just cannot tackle them like your orthodox employees. Corrective guidance can make these people your organization’s most valuable asset, but you have to rein in their problematic workplace conduct on time.

I am sure these tips will help you a lot when it comes to managing difficult employees. I believe it’s important for you to let them know what is expected of them, what is not acceptable, and how your organization is willing to guide them in making progress on this front.

We’d be glad to hear your opinion. Reach out to us on Twitter (@proofhub)

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Vartika Kashyap
The Helm

Chief Marketing Officer@ProofHub. Featured writer on LinkedIn. Contributor at Elearning Industry, Dzone, Your Story and