What to Do When Your Best Employee Has the Worst Social Skills
Every manager dreams of having the perfect employees, but that’s rarely the case. Most people often have a handful of good employees, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. However, some managers have employees that have exceptional hard skills and are dedicated to the company, but rub their coworkers the wrong way. They lack people skills and others don’t get along with them.
There is hope for your employees who need better soft skills, and hope that your team will be able to work together peacefully. Here’s how you can help difficult employees work better with others.
Evaluate the Impact A Difficult Team Member Has on Your Team
There’s a significant difference between being difficult and being toxic. Difficult employees might chew loudly or having annoying habits, but toxic employees can reduce productivity and affect the mental health of team members.
“[With a toxic employee, there’s] a pattern of de-energizing, frustrating or putting down teammates,” Christine Porath, Ph.D., author of “Mastering Civility,” tells HBR. “It’s not just that Joe is rude. The whole team suffers because of it.” Toxic employees disengage other employees and can lead them to quit.
The effect of toxic employees cannot be understated. A recent study by workplace comparison platform Comparably found that 43 percent of women and 32 percent of men have a coworker who makes them want to quit.
It’s up to you as manager to determine whether employee behavior is toxic or simply annoying. When team members come to you to complain, you need to know whether addressing the problem is warranted. “Employees are expected to be self-sufficient and act cordially, if not friendly, with each other,” writes Sandeep Kashyap, founder of project management and collaboration software provider ProofHub. “Use your judgment wisely when it comes to addressing issues.”
If you must act to change the behavior of a toxic employee, then you’ll need to handle the situation carefully.
Broach the Subject of Employee Behavior Delicately
Start by meeting with the problem employee to address the concerns you have about their behavior. It’s entirely possible that this difficult employee has no idea how they come across to the rest of the office, which is why it’s important to approach the topic privately, and in a sensitive manner.
“Even though we all say we want someone to tell us when we have something green in our teeth, it’s still horrifying when someone actually does,” Jennifer DeRome at The Muse writes. “Whatever the annoying habit or trait may be, empathy and compassion are of the utmost importance.”
Identifying a lack of self-awareness can help you decide the best way to broach the subject. Executive leadership coach Martina Carroll-Garrison, D. Mgt., says those with poor people skills show symptoms that managers can look for. These include:
The employee gets defensive or deflects when there is a threat.
The employee uses passive-aggressive responses to convey their feelings.
The employee has been accused of being a bully before.
The employee is considered controlling, a micromanager or being nit-picky about work.
The employee has mood swings or inconsistent behavioral changes.
A lack of self-awareness often goes hand-in-hand with low emotional intelligence, which itself means that the team member has little to no idea of the impact their actions have on those around them.
During a meeting with a difficult employee, career development expert Octavia Goredema, founder of career resource site Twenty Ten Talent, encourages managers to listen as much as they talk. This can help you understand where they are coming from and why they are behaving a certain way. She says to take a step back and make a follow-up appointment if the team member gets upset or the conversation becomes too emotional to come up with logical solutions.
Check Whether Your Company Culture Affects Their Behavior
The problems your employees bring up about their coworker might not just be stemming from that particular employee. That worker might be a product of the team they are in or a product of your workplace culture.
“Most organizations have espoused values [and] a second set of values—their real values,” says Joseph Grenny, author of “Crucial Conversations” and cofounder of leadership training provider VitalSmarts. “The real ones are those that govern how people actually get their work done. These real values are the only ones that matter.”
Just because the company as a whole wants to have a certain culture doesn’t mean that’s how most employees act day-to-day. These cultural norms are why Blake Morgan, customer experience futurist, advocates for company-wide communications and professional training.
“Every employee contributes to your brand, so it’s important to have a company where people communicate well,” she writes. “Communications training helps establish consistency in communications standards so employees know what the brand stands for and how to communicate with co-workers and customers in a variety of situations.”
Group training also prevents your problem employees from getting singled out, giving them a platform to improve without feeling like they are being punished.
Identify Where Your Employee’s Soft Skills Are Lacking
It’s often the case that brilliant employees have terrible soft skills. They can learn a program or process in a few days, but can’t seem to communicate or work well with others. As a manager, you are holding your employees back by not helping them grow their soft skills along with their technical ability.
In a study by cloud-based recruiting software provider iCIMS Hiring Insights, 94 percent of recruiting professionals say an employee with strong soft skills has a greater chance of getting promoted than one without. The top three business areas that require strong soft skills are customer service and human resources (both at 67 percent), and sales/marketing (at 53 percent).
“Soft skills may be harder to define and measure than hard skills, but they are just as critical,” says management consultant Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking. “People get hired because of their hard skills but get fired because of their soft skills.”
While the types of soft skills employees need haven’t changed much in the past few decades, the way people work has, explains human resources specialist Anatoly Denisov. Open floor plans and an emphasis on collaborative work means employees spend a lot more time working together and around each other. In some cases, the amount of time teams spend collaborating has increased 50 percent in the past 20 years.
Suggest Employee Development and Training Programs
There is good news for helping problem employees: You don’t have to change their behavior by yourself. There are several programs out there, including courses offered by Bob the BA that focus on leadership, communication and emotional intelligence.
“Unless you are dealing with a fireable offense or other special circumstance, your first interaction with your difficult employee should be coaching,” writes Robert Tanner, founder of Business Consulting Solutions. “By demonstrating to this employee that your first approach is to work with them in a productive manner (rather than punish them), you're much more likely to gain their cooperation to improve their performance.”
Tanner adds that this is especially true for employees who have the skills to do their job and want to succeed within the company.
Training can also help employees who are hoping for a promotion but lack the soft skills to step into management roles. Sara Pollock at talent management software provider ClearCompany says that 76 percent of employees feel like they’re not given enough opportunities for career growth. Investing in their development can show a difficult employee that you want them to build the right skills to succeed.
“Decades of research shows the most important work motivators are not financial,” Joseph Grenny says. “As a leader, are you creatively connecting your people to the larger human purpose of the enterprise? Are you investing in developing satisfying connections of trust and intimacy among team members?”
When your employees see that you care about them, they will want to improve and grow to work better with others.
If you are ready to take steps to change a particular employee’s behavior, try to highlight specific weaknesses and problems that need to be addressed. For example, organizational development consultant Simon Kilpatrick notes there are three reasons why people struggle to communicate in the workplace:
A lack of social awareness and emotional intelligence.
A lack of knowledge regarding communication policies and techniques.
A lack of confidence to communicate with others.
From here, you can determine which programs would be best for a team member, whether it’s developing their emotional intelligence or communication skills.