11 Types of Challenging Staff Members and How to handle them

Over the past few months I have written about challenging bosses and colleagues. To complete this picture, I am now writing about the other part to this puzzle – challenging staff members.

There is no prescriptive way to bring out the best in people. The foundation for inspiring employees is trust, a safe environment and good intent. Only with such a sound foundation will a leader be able to use practical tactics to address these challenging staff members.  

Who are these challenging Staff members?

High Maintenance

In most cases, these employees are very good at what they do. They need validation, acknowledgement or a sounding board.  This can mean many hours of conversation which can be tiring for managers, who have many other issues on their plate.

Setting up regular time slots for meetings is a good way to limit the time spent with these individuals. Bring in the routine to nudge them into the allotted time slot if they ambush you at other times. Ask them if it is a critical issue. If not, push them back to the agreed meeting time.  Make sure that you are present and mindful in the time allotted for them. They are smart enough to know when you are not engaged.  This will certainly turn them off you and you will lose them.


These individuals cannot prioritise or manage their work.  They are notorious for missing deadlines and delaying projects.  Many of these individuals attend time management courses as a remedy.  Unless there is some follow through in their jobs, these courses will make barely any difference in these individuals modus operandi.

You will need to ensure that these time management tactics are followed by the individuals in their jobs. Set them clear and precise short term goals for each week.  Show them which type of tasks need to be prioritised over others that they love to do and why.  Give them both constructive and reinforcing feedback on their progress.  These individuals can drain you as changing behavior can be a hard task.  You will need to make a call if the will to change is powerful enough in these individuals.


Such individuals are usually scared to make a call on anything.  This may be driven by bad experiences of the past, the culture of the organisation or the genetic footprint of the individual.

You will need to establish a safe environment where team members are not afraid of failure and will learn from their experiences.  You will need to be the role model that reinforces these behaviours. This will not be a fast process. It will take time for the team member to feel this and be comfortable to make decisions.  It is also not easy to be the only leader cheering for this culture, when the vast majority of your peers are into making scapegoats of poor decision makers..

Drama Queen/King

These individuals thrive on excessive emotional performances or reactions.  They can be energy vampires. Make sure you remain calm when they having one of their fits.  Slow the conversation right down and deal with the issue.  In time, they will be influenced by your demeanor and will reduce the propensity to have a dramatic moment.


Some individuals love to gossip.  I doubt you will be able to cure a gossip of his/her addiction.  The best you can do is to put in ground rules to contain it.  Make sure you are role modelling this rule as their leader.  You will need to refrain from talking about others in a negative fashion or listening to gossip.

If you do see this behaviour, call it out. Hopefully that will nip it in the bud. For repeat offenders you may have to think of sterner inhibitors. Some individuals are hard to pin down.  Depending on their toxicity you may have to decide if the individual is going to be part of your team or not.


This individual suffers from “the glass half full syndrome”. They are energy vampires like the drama queens/kings.  One way to discourage this behaviour is to ask them to come up with solutions to the issues they are complaining about.  You may need to work with them to face reality or explore options to solve their issue.  This may cure the smarter individuals of this habit.  The entrenched complainer on the other hand will struggle to give up their favorite pass time.

Like the habitual gossip, you will have to decide if their behaviour has a toxic effect on the rest of your team.

Finger Pointer

This individual loves to blame others for issues that come up.  For some individuals it is a question of self protection.  Others may be motivated by ill intent.  Understand the root cause.  If it is to protect themselves, it is easier to fix. The onus is on you to establish a safe, learning culture.  You will need to calmly get to the bottom of the issue and work out a lasting solution with those involved.  The way you handle yourself and how you treat those involved will be the key to reinforcing this culture.This way individuals will feel safe to have open conversations and to learn from the issue.  

If there is ill intent, it is hard to fix.   Never react to the situation.  The learning approach to fixing and preventing the issue should be maintained.  Be fair in your dealings with everyone.  Call out any behaviours that support ill intent. Depending on the toxicity of the individual, you may need to decide if they are going to be part of your team going forward.

Thunder Cloud

This individual has severe mood swings. You will never know what kind of person walks through the door every morning.  Having an open conversation may enlighten you about the cause for the mood swings. As you most likely are not a psychologist or a therapist, you cannot solve their issues yourself.  You can give them an awareness about their behavior and its effect on the others in the team.  They will need to work out how to manage themselves better or seek help from professionals.


This individual will react very badly (kick you vigorously) if they feel that they are being forced to change.  They can dig in their heels and refuse to move from their position.  Once you detect someone possesses such characteristics, you will need to use logic, reason and cajolement to get them on board.  Tiring but worth the effort, especially if they are good performers.

Show Pony

This individual is a hard nut to crack.  They are average at their jobs but are exceptional at presenting themselves and their/or others  ideas to superiors.  They seem to build great relationships with important people in the organisation.  They love to travel and meet people.  This is fundamental for their survival to impress key stakeholders.  They will be vigorous proponents  of all initiatives from the top and do a great job in managing up the chain.

As you can imagine, managing such people is a great challenge.  If you manage them strictly they will run to your superiors for help.  They can dissolve under pressure and have temper tantrums.  Between the temper tantrums and pressure from your superiors, you will most likely struggle.  Make sure your credibility bank is built up with those above you.  These individuals will be hard to change.  They are another category you may need to move out of your team.


This individual may have a number of the traits outlined above. Especially the show pony’s  ability to impress those above you and seek protection from others  if they feel threatened.  They also can be manipulative and destabilise you to achieve their own goals.

Build up your credibility and relationships with your peers and superiors to ensure that you have their respect.  Because it is very hard to identify their underhand tactics, combating them is not easy . Be alert and pick up on such behaviors.  Never react to their provocation.   Don’t resort to their tactics.  This will lose you the respect of others in your team. Call out the behaviour if it is visible. Keep your manager and HR in the loop so that they will back you up. The more Machiavellian they are, the harder it will be to pin anything on them.   

Being a leader is not a walk in the park. Getting the best out of people is more an art than a science. Unfortunately an art that you will learn mostly through trial and error.  Good luck with your leadership journey. It can be a hard but rewarding if you learn the lessons that life and these individual throw at you.  Good luck with your career.

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