5 Ways to Deal with Aggressive Employees

Joe Weinlick
Posted by in Career Advice

When you encounter aggressive behavior from an employee, it's common nature to shrink away or react with the same level of hostility. Both responses create a cycle of unhealthy interaction and give difficult employees the green light to keep acting out. As a manager, you can't avoid conflict and let aggression poison your team. Learn to use constructive management techniques that reduce tension and help employees communicate in a professional manner.

1. Point Out the Behavior

Aggressive people don't always realize how quickly their behavior escalates. Negativity and defensiveness are default reactions, making it hard for the person to see you as an ally. A difficult employee could be yelling, getting in your face or cutting you off whenever you talk. In some cases, the behavior is more passive, but just as disruptive, such as mocking gestures or whispering under the breath.

The best way to diffuse the tension is to address it. Choose words that encourage a difficult employee to look at the situation clearly and recognize when she's overreacting. For example, "You seem very upset, and I want to understand the problem. We can figure out how to resolve this issue if we both calm down." By staying composed, you give employees time to reflect and adjust their behavior.

2. Show Compassion

You can often curtail aggressive behavior simply by showing you care. Acknowledge your employee's feelings, and avoid being dismissive or looking for faults. When you listen and maintain a calm, friendly demeanor throughout the conversation, a difficult employee is more likely to mirror your tone.

3. Step Away and Regroup

While you should never surrender to difficult employees, it's beneficial to give everyone time to cool down. Let your employee know it's okay to step away and manage his emotions in private. Make it clear you intend to follow up: "This discussion is no longer productive. Why don't we take a moment to collect our thoughts and come back with a solution?" Taking a break gives you the opportunity to consider your employee's perspective and why the person reacted so passionately.

4. Move to a Neutral Zone

Try to limit conflicts to whomever was originally involved. That way, the facts are less likely to get distorted and cause more problems. Aggression is toxic and harder to contain the more it infects your team. Avoid badmouthing a difficult employee to other people on your team or fighting in front of co-workers. You might need to find a private place for a one-on-one chat or even invite your employee to lunch to address issues in a neutral environment.

5. Get More Information

Learning to deal with difficult personalities is a necessary skill. Look at it as a chance to understand other perspectives. Instead of retreating, ask questions to get a better picture of what's bothering your co-worker. Although it's stressful to confront difficult employees, they may have legitimate concerns worth hearing. Just be assertive and explain that you can't continue the conversation until the employee is willing to communicate respectfully.

You can't be an effective leader if you're afraid to confront problems. Try to find the source of aggression and create conditions where employees feel comfortable opening up to you. Managers, how do you encourage healthy communication on your team? Share your techniques for dealing with difficult employees.

Photo courtesy of Free Images at Flickr.com


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  • Sheena K.
    Sheena K.

    Working in a warehouse full of mostly subcontractors things get heated often.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Susana O. thanks for your comment. So sorry you have to deal with aggressive behavior every day. Hopefully you are in the process of finding a new position!!!

  • Susana O.
    Susana O.

    I deal with this every day

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