How to Manage People Who Do Not Want to be Managed

The role of the manager is not to change the personalities of her employees to fit into a mold. But inevitably, you will be tasked with managing personalities who are just plain difficult. From the guy with the huge ego who thinks he knows more than you do to the talented loner who refuses to collaborate, some people do not want to be managed - and they may respond poorly to your efforts to do so.

How to react? By adopting one of the responses below.

Tactic #1: Allocate a Training Role

Is your employee rude, impatient or superior because others do not have his level of expertise? Has he failed to build relationships with his co-workers because he knows more than anyone else in the field? So-called "expert" employees are often the most difficult to manage. If an employee has more experience than you, he has no reason to seek out your help and may be resistant to feedback and coaching. He may see you as a peer, not as someone who could teach him anything. In fact, he may not see any need for a manager at all – which is why managing him is so hard!

This type of personality invariably knows his worth to the organization and you certainly don't want to lose him to competitors. At the same time, you cannot allow him to monopolize the floor during meetings or prevent others from expressing their ideas. One tactic is to give him the role of trainer so he communicates his knowledge to others. This will put him in a position of intellectual authority, which experts crave. At the very least, your employee will be forced to interact with others, responding to questions and reflecting back on what's heard. This will support his own career growth and development as he becomes more receptive to other points of view.

Tactic #2: Adopt a Coaching Style of Management

People who resist being managed may be more compliant if they are made to feel independent and special. If you stick to traditional methods of management, which tend to focus on rewards and sanctions, then you will end up driving them away. High-performing employees respond particularly well to a trust-based style of management. As their manager, you need to adopt the role of the benevolent collaborator, rather than the traditional autocratic leader.

What does a coaching style of management look like? You can probably conjure up images of a boss working alongside his employees, focused on solving problems together. But it can also require a backing off, delegating responsibilities and giving the employee the freedom to tackle projects creatively. Talented people are more receptive and engaged in a system where they feel they can influence the process and believe that their contributions matter. 

I'm sure that every manager thinks she manages in a collaborative way. But virtually all employees report being unnecessarily micromanaged at some time or another, even if their boss is completely unaware she was doing it. If you can look at your management style holistically and determine whether you are (inadvertently) triggering a problem response, that can lead you to a constructive solution.

Tactic #3: Switch Things Up

The most effective way to resolve problem behavior is to make a clean sweep of the past and develop new strategies to help you both work together more constructively in the future. To this end, getting out of the old routines can make a big difference. Providing your hard-to-manage people with a different environment and atmosphere means it's less easy for them to fall into a trap of being siloed, grumpy or disconnected.

Switching things up can take many forms, but essentially you're looking at:

  • Changing the working context – by reshaping the team, putting the difficult personality in a different role, giving him the freedom to work on his own, or moving things around in the physical office.
  • Changing the image you have of each other – by avoiding the "problem personality"/ "domineering boss" labels. To achieve this, have everyone take a personality assessment and open a dialogue about the results. It may throw up some obvious clashes and areas to work on that you hadn't noticed before.
  • Changing the relationship with her – try to be tolerant and listen to your hard-to-manage employee, in the hope of teasing out a relationship. Investing a small amount of time just talking together, either in or outside of work, can build rapport, change the power dynamic and create new ways of working together. 

Tactic #4: Put Effectiveness First

Finally, remember that a manager's job is to be effective. At the end of the day, you have to decide whether an unmanageable employee is an asset or a liability. If he's an asset, invest in him. If he's a liability, you'll have to decide whether your interventions are giving disproportionate importance to this individual's poor behavior. 

Some of the most talented people you'll manage will be very difficult. But the value they bring to the organization will far outweigh the problems they cause. If, on the other hand, a mediocre employee is passive-aggressive and routinely challenges your authority, then it may be time to terminate the relationship. It all depends on the competence of the employee in question.

Is this a desirable way to handle the situation? No. But it is pragmatic. Implementing these strategies, with appropriate energy going to those who are the most receptive to it, will help you to manage difficult people confidently and decrease the likelihood of adverse effects.

Jayne Thompson

Jayne is a freelance copywriter, business writing blogger and the blog editor here at Truity. One part word nerd, two parts skeptic, she helps writing-challenged clients discover the amazing power of words on a page. Jayne is an INTJ and lives in Yorkshire, UK with her ENTJ husband and two baffling children. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.

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