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How to Manage a Stubborn, Defensive, or Defiant Employee

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Executive Summary

Managing a defiant employee isn’t easy. To get the best from them, try three tactics. You might be able to adjust their job responsibilities to leverage their strengths. If they have deep technical expertise but lack management skills, for example, try putting them into a subject matter expert role. Some employees become oppositional when they feel insecure, especially if their role is changing. You might temporarily overlook their negative style while they adjust to their new circumstances and then work on stylistic problems once they’ve settled in and feel more familiar with the new expectations. Lastly, consider whether their resistance is appropriate. Perhaps they are pointing out process changes that need to be made or alerting you to problems no one else is willing to raise. Don’t outright dismiss negative behavior but also don’t let it go on too long. If none of these tactics work, it might be time for the person to move on.

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Some of the hardest employees to manage are people who are consistently oppositional. They might actively debate or ignore feedback, refuse to follow instructions they disagree with, or create a constant stream of negative comments about new initiatives. Most often, these behaviors are meant to make the employee look strong and mask a fear of change, an aversion to anticipated conflict, or the worry that they will look stupid or incompetent. I’ve found in my 30 years of consulting for both public and privately held companies, that there are three distinct approaches that can help you get the best from oppositional employees.

The first option is to adjust job responsibilities to leverage their strengths. One functional leader at a company I advised was known and appreciated for his technical expertise, but he was also an extreme micromanager and treated employees with disdain, leading to high turnover in his department. Whenever his manager or HR gave him feedback, he dismissed their input, because he felt that they didn’t understand what it took to succeed in his job.

It’s not uncommon for technical experts to struggle in management roles, and their resistance to feedback or support may be triggered when they realize they’re in over their heads but don’t want to be perceived as failing. One solution is to double down on their strengths and minimize their managerial responsibilities or give them a purely technical team. This worked for the functional leader, who, with a much smaller team of fellow experts to manage, ran into fewer obstacles and generated less unhappiness among his subordinates and superiors.

Another alternative is to temporarily overlook individual style while the person adjusts to their new circumstances. Some employees become oppositional when they feel insecure in a new role or with a significant change in their responsibilities. Rather than providing behavioral coaching on their negative or inappropriate communication, at least initially, it can be more effective to focus on the quality of their knowledge or output, and only work on stylistic problems once the employee feels more familiar with the changes and expectations.

I once worked with a nonprofit executive with deep institutional memory who was extremely sensitive to criticism, and became fearful and resistant whenever change was necessary, especially when new requirements were presented to her as fiats. She was so concerned with not looking stupid, weak, or out-of-date, that she became excessively defensive and reactive. This was particularly problematic because her position involved supporting new leaders, who cycled in and out of the job every two to three years, and she had to form new relationships with each one. But her behavior wasn’t oppositional all the time: whenever she worked for a leader who showed respect for her skill and knowledge, she served with loyalty and tenacious effort. Showing appreciation for an employee’s knowledge and overlooking — for a time — their delivery can help build a positive connection you can then expand on.

Finally, it’s worth considering that they may be right. At one service firm where I consulted, a longtime department head expressed great negativity about the changes a succession of new bosses wanted to make. She began to change her attitude when one new leader paid attention to her complaints and took her challenges as clues that some of her “old ways” might still have merit. She became more willing to hear him out and to sign on to some of his new initiatives. Over time, he gave her more related responsibilities and opportunities to share her knowledge with other areas of the company. She continued to challenge some of his new directions, but warmed up significantly as she saw that her subject matter expertise was being taken seriously.

On the other hand, know where to draw the line. At another client, a senior leader who was an external hire felt that his track record spoke for itself, and that he didn’t need to adjust to his new company’s cultural norms. When he behaved in ways that were counter to norms around work/life balance and demonstrating respect for individual differences, he was chastised and counseled multiple times by a colleague from HR, but he assumed that his financial performance would protect him. In fact, he made it quite clear to colleagues that he didn’t have to “listen” to the feedback he was receiving. Despite the success of his work product, when too many employees complained that they felt denigrated and that he was damaging the organizational culture, the executive leadership got involved and he was let go.

Sometimes, the behavior of an oppositional employee is so damaging to their team or colleagues that the company cannot sustain it and must encourage them to move on. But in many cases, after understanding their concerns and motivations, organizations can provide effective support to oppositional employees through job redesign and relationship building. Then employees who were once seen as problems can bring their greatest strengths to bear on behalf of the organization, rather than against it.

Source: HBR.org