When a Good Worker is a Bad Apple

A reader asks:

“I have an employee who does good work but is negative and difficult to work with. She’s fairly abrasive, resists new ideas, and has alienated people who should be her allies. But she has incredible knowledge of the area she works in, and her work itself is good. I’ve tried talking to her about the problems I see, but nothing has really changed.”


Sound familiar? If you’ve struggled with this yourself, you’re in good company.

Managers are often hesitant to treat a problem on the “soft skills” front with the same assertiveness that they’d use to approach a problem with the same person’s work product. Too often, managers fall into the trap of seeing behavioral issues like negativity or trouble getting along with others as separate from the work itself – when they’re not separate at all.

“Soft skills” aren’t an extra add-on to the job, a bonus you can only expect from your top people. They’re as much a core part of what you need from the person as, say, strong writing or expertise with a particular software, and it’s just as reasonable (and, in fact, necessary) to make them part of the bar for the role. So articulate what the problem is – the behaviors that you need that you’re not seeing – and then define the role to include them.

As you do this, make sure that you don’t fall back on excuses to justify the behavior that’s been causing problems. For instance, if you have an assistant who regularly clashes with other staffers, you might be tempted to think, “Well, other folks can be prickly too.” But whether or not other folks are prickly, you need an assistant who can deal with prickly people, so you should define that as part of the job.

Being able to say, “Actually, I need someone in this role who can maintain good relationships with other teams” (or “handle high-stress situations without melting down,” or “approach new ideas with a sense of possibility and a can-do attitude”) can help your staff member understand what you expect, and help you figure out whether or not you’re getting it.