How To Manage a Strong-Minded Employee
We all work with, or have worked with, at least one of these strong-minded employees throughout our career. Some would call them difficult, troublemakers, hard to please or outspoken, but oftentimes, with the right coaching they can turn into top performers.
The downside, and what is most visible about strong-minded employees is their desire to be right, to argue, to find fault with everyone and everything. They seem to thrive on conflict or at least making managers lives miserable.
The upside is that these employees are very passionate about the companies they work for and what they do. To channel that passion in the right direction, it will take some dedicated work on the part of their manager. It is easy to see these strong-minded employees as high maintenance and want to move them out, but if a manager is willing to coach through those feelings they just may end up with a superstar.
The question only a manager can answer is, “Do you have the time and energy to coach and develop your strong-minded employee?” Most managers I know, love a challenge and they love success so if you are up for a challenge and are willing to invest some time and energy into this process, the tips below can help you achieve success.
Ten tips for managing a strong-minded employee:
- Build trust. Of course we love those employees who unquestioning just do what we ask of them. They make our life easy. But those employees who challenge us help us to see things from a different perspective. They show us where there is resistance. When we listen and respond to their concerns this actually helps us build trust. Once we establish a foundation of trust, this breaks down their blocks and opens the door for us to begin coaching them. Trust building begins with gentle coaching, letting employees know you are on their side while steering them in different directions. The most valuable thing we give our employees is our time. Spend time and invest yourself in the process.
- Provide outlets. Strong-minded employees like to be heard. Provide opportunities for them to share their thoughts. Give them a voice. This doesn’t mean you agree with them or allow for ongoing complaint sessions. When you allow them a platform they feel heard and to them feeling heard equals feeling valued. Also by providing an outlet, you may deter them from voicing their concerns at inopportune times. Part of trust building is allowing employees to voice their concerns. This also gives you a good idea of where to begin coaching them.
- Listen. Take the time to really listen to what they are saying. Ask questions. Sometimes when employees are passionate about something, it is because it touched a nerve in them. This may have little to do with the situation at hand. There is generally something driving their need to complain. Once you figure out the root cause, you can help them understand what they are feeling and why. Also it is important to consider that what this employee may be passionately conveying could be what others are thinking but are not bold enough to voice it.
- Empathize. This doesn’t mean you need to agree with what employees say, think or feel but if you take the time to understand their point of view it will help you know how to best coach them through it. Sometimes situations aren’t ideal so we need to help employees understand how to move through them and let them know that complaining isn’t an option. Saying things like, “tell me more about that so I can better understand your point” is an excellent way to get into their minds.
- Avoid power struggles. There is no need to prove that you are the boss. The minute you engage in that type of conversation you have lost your true power. Your true power lies in your ability to redirect a conversation, to see through the obvious and to help someone tap into their potential. Trying to put someone in their place does not foster respect or collaboration. If you start to feel that power play bubbling up in you, simply stop, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you don’t have to prove anything to this employee. Also know that a power struggle feeds into these employee’s agenda. If you are upset, they know they were heard. The goal is to hear them in a more productive way.
- Don’t publically chasten. If a comment or behavior pushes your button calmly tell the employee that you would be happy to discuss this with them offline. This way you don’t allow them to monopolize the meeting or humiliate them in front of their peers. Oftentimes these employees want to feel respected for their views. They want to know they are valued. They say things loudly so everyone will hear and see them taking charge. Someone told me once that the person who cries the loudest is in the most pain. If you embarrass them in front of others, it will add to their pain, fuel negative behaviors, break down trust and create dissention.
- Coach through your relationship. No one learns when they are in the midst of conflict. Even if someone knows they are wrong, they may argue to the death trying to save face. If you take the time to build a relationship with a strong-minded employee they will be open and ready to receive constructive feedback. Let them know you are on their side and want them to be successful, which is why certain behaviors concern you. Use tense moments as coaching opportunities.
- Engage with respect and understanding. As discussed, most strong-minded employees are looking for respect. This is typically number one on their list. When you give them respect and take time to understand their point of view, whether you agree or disagree won’t matter as much. Their ideas may be a great idea but a bad timing or the forum was wrong. Acknowledging this will help them feel heard and provide context for your response. Sometimes simply asking them, “what caused you to react that way” can gently encourage them to stop and think about their actions.
- Build positive action plans. I can remember early on a manager saying that she wanted to help me find a way to turn my outspoken nature into something leadership oriented and put me in charge of a project team. I was so inspired and excited by this I never even felt insulted. Also, Try turning your language around. Instead of saying, “Your outbursts are unprofessional and inappropriate”, change that statement to, “I appreciate that you feel the need to passionately convey your thoughts during a meeting, but sometimes that passion comes off as abrupt or abrasive.”…which leads me to the last point.
- Involve them in the solution. This is again giving them a voice and allowing them to come up with a solution to the situation at hand. In the example above saying to an employee, “You have good ideas but sometimes the way they are presented puts others on edge. How can work to improve the delivery?” Allowing them to come up with a solution allows for buy in and makes the solution something that they feel committed to. When they are venting, ask them what they think makes sense and if it makes sense, put them in charge of the project.
In the end, a manager will have to make the decision if the employee is worth saving or if it is easier to just manage them out. Hopefully the tips above will help managers think through this before giving up.