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How to Manage a Stubborn, Defensive, or Defiant Employee

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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.

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Onward and upward —


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