Leading difficult employees

In every team there is one or another team member who causes problems. Such colleagues may reject change, be work-shy, conflict-prone or loners. These colleagues can slow down the team and the project if they are not managed properly. Dealing with difficult employees is particularly important in project management, where the cooperation of diverse team members is essential. In this article you will learn how you too can deal with difficult employees.
A woman leans on a laptop.


Difficult employees in the team

Difficult employees can be found in almost every company and can put a lot of strain on the team and the company. However, it is not easy to define the term "difficult" as it is a very individual matter and every person is different. Nevertheless, it can be said that it refers to people who have problems working with others, whether because of their behaviour, attitude or way of working.
The impact on the team and the company can be huge. Teamwork can be affected, resulting in a poor working atmosphere and low productivity. Loss of customers and turnover can also be the result, which is why dealing with difficult employees in the right way is very important. Project managers need to be able to recognize the different types and develop techniques for dealing with them. They should also be able to understand the behaviour and attitudes of employees in order to improve their motivation and morale.

Dealing with employees who do not accept change

Employees who do not accept change can be a major obstacle to project progress. They are often unsettled or feel threatened when new work processes or methods are introduced. Reasons for rejecting change can be uncertainty about the new work requirements, lack of information or lack of motivation.
Therefore, it is important for the project manager to understand the reasons for the resistance in order to be able to specifically address and overcome it. Open and transparent communication as well as strong commitment on the part of the project manager are crucial here. Employees affected should be informed about the upcoming changes at an early stage and also kept regularly updated during the process. It is important that the project manager involves people in the decision-making process so that they feel that their opinions are heard. This in turn increases their motivation.
In addition to actively involving those affected, an individual development plan can be drawn up for each employee that includes specific training and development to give them the know-how they need to meet the new requirements. Another option is to introduce changes gradually to give employees time to adapt and gain confidence in the new processes. It is important to highlight and celebrate team progress and successes to motivate staff. However, effective management also requires that managers set clear boundaries and point out consequences when employees do not follow the new work processes or do not fulfil their tasks. This usually takes time and patience, but open communication, strong leadership commitment and targeted action can help overcome resistance to change and increase efficiency and satisfaction.

Dealing with lazy employees

Laziness in the workplace can manifest itself in a number of ways, such as a lack of productivity, avoiding tasks or shifting responsibilities to others. The reasons for this unwillingness to work can be diverse: lack of motivation, lack of job satisfaction, insufficient skills or even personal problems.
First of all, it is important to identify the causes of the disinclination to work and, if possible, to eliminate them. To do this, it can be helpful to talk to the employees to find out what factors are leading to the lack of productivity. Targeted measures can then be taken to increase motivation. For example, training or education can be offered to teach employees new skills or give them more confidence in their work. Another important motivational strategy is a positive feedback culture. Employees should receive regular feedback on their work and progress to increase their self-esteem and motivation. Even small successes should be recognized and rewarded to show that their work is valued. At the same time, employees should have the opportunity to give feedback themselves to see if the company or the project manager themselves can still improve. Performance reviews are also a way to extrinsically motivate work-shy employees. However, care must be taken to ensure that the monitoring is meaningful and does not lead to a culture of surveillance that undermines employees' trust in the project manager. It is important that the control is transparent and fair so that employees feel that their work results are being evaluated objectively and that they are not just being "controlled" to put them in a bad light.
However, indolence can also be a character trait that stems from deeper personal problems. In such cases it is important to show sensitivity and understanding for the employee's situation.

Dealing with conflict-prone employees

Conflicts in the workplace are part of everyday working life and can be quite constructive if they help to expose problems and grievances. However, conflict-prone colleagues pose a challenge to any team and can lead to serious problems if not dealt with appropriately. Employees with conflict potential can express themselves in different ways. Some are known to constantly criticise and challenge their colleagues or supervisors, while others are passive-aggressive and express their dissatisfaction through subtle comments or actions. It is important to understand that conflictual behaviour is often a deeply ingrained character trait that is not easy to change, but constant criticism and nagging need not be tolerated.
Even though some people tend to criticise all the time, there is always a reason why they do so in a particular situation and therefore it is important to find out the reasons for the criticism. These can be varied and range from lack of communication to different working styles to unequal workloads and unfair decisions. Conflicts can also arise due to personality differences, cultural differences or a lack of team dynamics.
As a project manager, it is important to recognize problems early on and solve them quickly. People with a strong ability to deal with conflict can be helpful in this: By directly addressing grievances or even behaving in a passive-aggressive manner and correctly interpreting this behaviour, problems can be uncovered more quickly. Although the mood is often clouded by such colleagues, the problems come to the surface more quickly.
In any case, open communication and cooperation should be encouraged. Communication rules or rules for a respectful working environment where everyone is heard and valued should be introduced at this point. Regular feedback and clear communication of expectations can also help reduce the likelihood of employees becoming disgruntled. A sympathetic ear and a private conversation can sometimes work wonders.
When conflicts arise, it is important to address them immediately before they escalate and cause serious problems. A conflict management strategy should be used when conflicts arise between project participants. This may involve appointing a neutral person to mediate between the parties and find common solutions. Another option is to engage a professional mediator to help the conflicting parties reach an agreement.

Dealing with loners in the team

Loners are employees who often withdraw, communicate little and do not actively participate in teamwork. This can have a negative impact on the team climate and reduce the efficiency and effectiveness of teamwork. There are various reasons why employees can develop into loners, e.g. bad experiences in the past or lack of motivation to work in a team, but sometimes it is simply a personality trait.
To support loners and promote their integration into the team, it is important to understand the reasons for their behaviour and apply appropriate strategies. One way is to recognize the strengths and interests of individual team members and involve them accordingly. A positive feedback culture and targeted recognition for good performance can also help loners feel that their work is valued and that they contribute to the team's success.
Another strategy is to organise meetings and work processes in a way that encourages collaboration and sharing. It can be helpful to set clear rules and goals so that each staff member knows what is expected of them and what their role is in the team. Open communication and regular exchange between team members can also strengthen trust and cooperation in the team.
It is important to note that loneliness can also be a character trait and does not necessarily have to be evaluated negatively. Some people simply prefer to work alone and can also perform well in this way. However, it is important that this does not become an obstacle to teamwork, but that this trait is used positively. For example, it can make sense not to force a loner into teamwork, but to use the strengths elsewhere. If this is not possible, targeted training or further education of the employees can help to integrate them better into the team. For example, specific skills or soft skills can be taught that are important for teamwork. Coaching by the project manager or an external coach can also help the project member to overcome inhibitions and reservations about teamwork.


Leading a team as a project manager brings many challenges. One of them is dealing with difficult team members. The reasons for this can be both personal and professional. It is therefore crucial that the project manager recognizes these aspects in order to effectively lead the team by providing individual support to each staff member and thus ensure the success of the project.

Leading difficult employees - The IAPM logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Leadership

The IAPM certification

The certification can be taken via a reputable online examination procedure. The costs are based on the gross domestic product of your country of origin.

From the IAPM Blog

Become a Network Official

Do you want to get involved in project management in your environment and contribute to the further development of project management? Then become active as an IAPM Network Official or as a Network Official of the IAPM Network University. 

For better readability, we usually only use the generic masculine form in our texts. Nevertheless, the expressions refer to members of all genders.