Being the boss is never easy, but some employees make it particularly difficult. How do you cope with those who do their jobs well but are equally skilled at annoying both you and their colleagues? Tim Eisenhauer, co-founder of Axero Solutions, which makes the workplace intranet Communifire, has some practical suggestions for coping with challenging employee personalities.
Here’s his list of the six most common problem personalities, and how to motivate them to improve their behavior.
1. The Gossip
“It’s estimated that around one in every five office workers engages in gossip, and that office workers spend up to three hours each work week hearing, seeing, and speaking gossip,” Eisenhauer says. If you pay attention, you’ll see that certain employees are always in the middle of these discussions, and often initiate them. “Gossips always know—or think they know—what is going on at the company, and they aren’t shy about forming their opinions and seeking out other people’s opinions,” he notes.
You can’t eliminate, or even reduce, the amount of gossip in your workplace, he warns, and trying will lead only to ill will. Besides, you don’t necessarily want to eliminate it. “Relationships between co-workers have been shown to improve productivity, collaboration, and employee satisfaction,” he says. When employees talk about the things they have in common, including co-workers, managers, and the company, they are creating a bond that will benefit both them and you.
The smarter approach is to use gossip as a tool to encourage all your employees to be better. “As a manager, accept that your employees will gossip about you,” he says. “Use your ‘star power’ to demonstrate behavior that you want to see in your company. Do what you say you are going to do, be open and transparent, and build trust. In short, put yourself beyond reproach.” The more your employees observe and comment on the way you do things, the more likely they will follow your lead.
2. The Grump
The character Stanley Hudson in The Office is a perfect example of a grump, Eisenhauer says: “He is uninterested in his work and the workplace, beyond taking home a paycheck, and clearly does not want to be there. Stanley grudgingly does what is asked of him and nothing more. His negativity and disengagement are palpable.”
Dealing with a grump can make you grumpy yourself, but don’t give in to that feeling, Eisenhauer advises. “Some office grumps have generally cantankerous personalities, whereas others’ grumpiness stems from [their] being unhappy at work,” he notes. “Whatever the case, the best strategy is to kill them with kindness. Give praise when they do a good job and don’t let their negativity bring you down.”
At the same time, he says, try to find out the reason for their unhappiness. “Ask what you can do to make their work life more enjoyable,” he says. “The key is to communicate and listen. Make sure they feel heard and that their contributions are recognized.”
3. The Overachiever
“In school and in work alike, there are always overachievers,” Eisenhauer says. As the boss, it may not be obvious to you why an overachiever is a problem personality. “Authority figures tend to respond well to overachievers,” he notes. “They go above and beyond what is asked of them and clearly care about succeeding.”
You want overachievers on your team, he notes—they propose big ideas, move projects forward, and generally get things done. If you give them a task, you don’t have to wonder whether it will be completed or not.
“However, overachievers can often be impatient,” Eisenhauer says. They may not work well in situations where they have to strictly follow orders. And they can cause jealousy and resentment in their less overachieving co-workers.
“Approach them as a supporter and a coach,” Eisenhauer advises. “Give them projects, but don’t micromanage. Check in often, but not to dictate how things are done. And make sure that you don’t heap praise on these employees at the expense of others.”
4. The Suck-up
“Suck-ups can sometimes seem like overachievers, but they are actually in a category of their own,” Eisenhauer says. “These people do not necessarily perform better or even work more than the average employee. Rather, they strive to tell bosses what they want to hear and ingratiate themselves with authority figures.” Interestingly, he adds, suck-ups may not even realize they’re sucking up.
Suck-ups are usually insecure, he says. Their lack of confidence in their own abilities leads them to attempt to compensate with excessive flattery and ingratiating behavior. “As a manager, don’t get sucked into their behavior and drama,” Eisenhauer says. “Be polite, but don’t reward them for their fawning. Stick to the facts and try to subtly discourage their behavior. When you do issue praise, make sure it’s for a legitimate accomplishment.”
5. The Slacker
Most managers hate working with slackers because they appear lazy or incompetent, or both, Eisenhauer notes. “They may not get their work done, or at least not in a timely manner, and they do the bare minimum,” he says. “Slackers jump on every opportunity to not work and may spend a majority of their work day on non work-related activities.”
You may be tempted to simply terminate slackers, especially if they aren’t pulling their own weight. But before you do, consider trying a few simple interventions that may dramatically improve a slacker’s performance. “Often what they need is more structure,” Eisenhauer says. “Work with a slacker to set goals. Make sure these goals are emotionally appealing, meaning they connect somehow to their interests and strengths. Create a sense of urgency if you can.”
Boredom and being under-challenged can often turn people into slackers, he notes. So try finding something important for them to do, and urge them to do something that will be difficult and outside their comfort zone. “Disrupt their usual automatic way of thinking,” he says. You may discover that your slacker isn’t so lazy after all.
6. The Clown
“The office clown is the grown-up version of the class clown—someone who may be highly entertaining and funny, but at the cost of being disruptive,” Eisenhauer says. Clowns love to play pranks and joke around, and it can be tough for them take things seriously.
Most clowns mean well, but they can still be a big problem in the workplace. “Clowning on the job is distracting and can be offensive or hurtful to other people,” he says. Since clowns crave attention, don’t fall into their trap by disrupting them in the middle of their “act” or having a big blow-up in front of the whole team, he warns. Instead, sit down with the clown and have a serious conversation.
Once you’re in private, you can ask or order the clown to stop being disruptive. Or, you can try a subtler tactic that may be quite effective: Give the clown a big, complicated project with a tight deadline. That way, he or she will no longer have time for clowning around.
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