Difficult Employees with Good Intentions

Don’t give up on a great worker who can’t communicate

Back Web Only Nov 19, 2015 By Tania Fowler

You might experience a scenario like this at the office: A colleague, boss or employee is incredibly gifted; they are technically skilled, knowledgeable, strategic and very smart.  But a frustrating paradox is that they are terrible communicators: unable to take on other’s perspectives, constantly interrupting and long-winded, putting themselves ahead of others, defensive, inflexible, emotional — you get the drift.  

People get upset with these difficult employees, choosing to ignore or stay away from them. Difficult employees might be thought of as weird by the rest of the staff, whom they make uncomfortable. The question is what separates these difficult employees from the more toxic employees people have to deal with? While a toxic employee is largely motivated to sabotage or undermine an individual, team or leader for specious reasons, the real hurdle for simply difficult employees is that their road to poor communication is often paved, surprisingly, with their good intentions.

Michelle Garcia Winner, an expert in social thinking and cognitive behavioral issues (and also my sister) writes in Social Thinking at Work: “Many people with highly developed minds related to their professions are not nearly as gifted in how they relate to other’s minds. Think about the doctor with the poor bedside manners, or the brilliant engineer who can’t lead a team of people competently. No matter how intelligent or accomplished these individuals may be in their chosen field of work, if their social mind is not functioning in tandem with their professional mind, this might explain some of the trouble they have operating in the workplace.”  

All of us have life-long patterns of behavior. I describe that pattern as a wake, much like the white waves cut by a speeding boat. Poor communicators share patterns where they can seem to be:

  • Overly direct to the point of being insensitive to others
  • Unable to share someone else’s perspective
  • Talking more than listening
  • Focused on their own ideas over everyone else’s
  • Manipulative and/or unfriendly
  • Well-intentioned, yet their actions don’t match their intentions

In my practice, many of these poor communicators have been sent to me prompted by coworker complaints. Understandably, coworkers become frustrated with these patterns of behavior; they aren’t trained psychologists after all, they are just people trying to do their jobs and don’t necessarily have the toolkit to deal with maddening communication issues. Coworkers I talk to are usually mystified by and angry with having to deal with an individual’s poor communication for an extended length of time. They have had enough and — while they appreciate the professional talent such people bring to the table — frustration has, ironically, reduced their own empathy, curiosity or desire to communicate well with the problematic employee. They no longer care about how well-intentioned the poor communicator might be.

What difficult employees are unaware of is how people see them. “Adults with social learning challenges are born with weak social curiosity; they don’t often wonder what people are thinking, feeling or doing in their presence,” Winner writes. “Instead they are under the incorrect impression that since they know their own intentions are good, everyone else simply must know it too. When they are misunderstood or perceived as unfriendly they feel terrible.”

So, what can be done?

While your employee is intelligent and does an amazing job, you continue to field many complaints; coworkers or even clients have asked to work with others instead.

First, if such a person is a subordinate or peer, analyze what it is that seems off about that employee’s behavior (pattern of talent,communication problems and/or intentions). Seek a professional consultation for possible direction. Ask the employee if he is open and willing to get some communication therapy or coaching. If yes, get on it.

Second, a 360 feedback report (a collection of themes and advice derived from confidential interviews of coworkers) is also an excellent tool for difficult communicators to see first-hand evidence of what exactly isn’t working for them communication-wise. They often doubt or dismiss the results (because they don’t think they have a problem), so you have to ask them thought-provoking questions to prompt their resolve in getting some help. When they are motivated and well-intentioned to do better, they slowly take in what their colleagues are telling them. After all, overwhelming consensus is hard to deny.

Third, taking perspective can be difficult for these people, especially when in a “communication moment” with others. You can help them to think about other perspectives by asking them questions that provoke their thinking about someone else. “What do you think Mary’s perspective might be on this solution?” or “What do you think Jim’s body language was telling us?” Get them in the habit of thinking about other people, as this will strengthen their perspective-taking muscle and open up their communication possibilities.

It is important to at least consider that there may indeed be some cognitive hiccup in their brains, allowing for the communication problems. That hiccup has likely been there a very long time. Once your poor communicator begins to show signs of communicating better — like asking your opinion or wanting your help — be sure to encourage any positive signs of improvement. Sure, you are looking for an overall pattern and are right to be suspicious of inauthentic gestures. But once you see a new, genuine communication pattern emerging, encourage their efforts by telling them you appreciate their new approach.

Progress will likely be very slow, a “two steps forward, one step back” kind of thing, so please be patient with the employee and give positive and specific feedback to help them see what is and isn’t working. Keep your expectations low, at least in the beginning. Change is hard. Often they are well-intentioned but just unaware. But a valuable employee is worth a bit of patience.

Increased awareness about this paradox in the workplace can potentially help everyone, as improved communication helps to reduce stress and frustration significantly. And then good intentions really do reign.