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How to manage challenging staff situations

Managers attending management training courses often state that two of the most challenging situations faced in managing people are 1. How impractical suggestions of staff are handled and 2. How to answer a question when you are unable to give information.

Most managers are as a rule usually grateful when a member of staff makes a suggestion or gives their opinion on a matter. Many good ideas after all come from those doing the day to day job. However, when somebody brings an idea that is simply unrealistic, it is important that it is handled sensitively. Here are some tips that will help you to deal with this situation:

First of all, listen while the member of staff explains their idea. Do not dismiss the idea as being completely impossible straightaway. It may contain some useful information.

Instead ask clear and concise questions that will encourage positive answers. Careful use of questions can help the employee to realise that the idea is not realistic for themselves. It is much better to encourage them to see the shortfalls for themselves rather than you telling them.

Try to be diplomatic in your comments. If presented with a poor suggestion do not simply react stating "That is impossible". Show your staff member that you are grateful for the idea and that you admire their concern and diligence.

Clarify your feelings regarding the situation, however do not lecture the staff member or make them feel stupid by saying things such as ‘We tried that and it did not work,’ which is the most common response provided from delegates attending management training courses.

A good technique is to capture the pros and cons of the idea and show why you believe the disadvantages to be greater. Always give the person an opportunity to reply with their counter arguments. This shows them that you are fair minded, which will earn you greater respect.

Seek a compromise, some ideas when modified are quite possible to achieve.  Even if the outcome has little to do with the original suggestion, the person will know that they were instrumental in the decision making process.

Lastly, never fall into the trap of agreeing to a suggestion or idea because you like that person.

The second problem that managers face is when a team member asks you a question to which you cannot, or will not give any information.  This could be for example that they involve something which is to be kept secret or a decision that has not yet been finalised.

It is essential that when faced with this situation that you do not pretend to be ignorant. It is dangerous to feign ignorance because if that person's question proves to be true, then you will lose credibility.

Do not treat the staff member brusquely, such as ‘why do you ask, it is nothing to do with you.’ If you react this way the staff member will feel challenged, and you are giving fuel for rumour. If you do not want to reply to their question, or at least not immediately, then you could use demarcation strategies (you do not want to give any information) or delay tactics (you prefer to answer that question at a later date).

Demarcation: ‘I understand that this is of interest to you, however I cannot (will not) talk to you about it.’ By saying this, you are making it clear to the staff member that they have overstepped the mark in their quest for knowledge.  Do not make any additional comment or provide an explanation.  They have to accept the answer as it stands.

Delay Tactics: ‘I cannot answer your question at the moment, however I promise that you will be told if and when the matter comes to a head.’  The staff have a right to information, but when and how they receive this information is up to you.   

Using demarcation or delay tactics will enable you react positively to awkward situations. Attending a management training course can help you develop the required skills to handle challenging employee situations.

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