I spent a lot of my early years as a boss congratulating myself on being a fantastic manager. That went on until I hired someone who had trouble getting to work at our client's site before 11am. He also failed to see the importance of taking notes in meetings, snapped at his coworkers, and thought certain elements of the job were beneath his abilities. He had this knack for irritating others and the remarkable ability to get progressively worse, not better.

I struggled to help him improve, keep the team focused, and prevent the client from firing us. I had to shed my cherished belief that I was this extraordinary manager. I wasn't.

For a little while, it was easy for me to blame him for all of the problems he brought to our project. But it didn't take long for other employees to turn to me and ask, "well, what are you going to do to fix it?" The truth was, I didn't know what to do. I simply wasn't equipped at the time to manage tough employee challenges -- especially those coming in rapid succession. After reflecting on the issue, I realized that everyone I'd managed up until then were outstanding employees. They were easy to manage because they were naturally responsible, service-oriented, and competent. They would have been great employees whether I was their boss or not.

I then remembered something my mom, a middle school English teacher, once told me. She said, "It's not your best student who makes you a good teacher, it's your worst." I realized that the very same sentiment is true for managers.

Your worst employee likely doesn't comply with office norms or policies, doesn't complete their work as directed, risks relationships with clients and peers, or all of the above. Problem employees often create disruptions that turn into bigger issues for the team or business. How you handle these issues depends entirely on your skills as a manager.

While wreaking havoc on your day, your worst employee creates a number of opportunities that your best don't. They...

  1. Force you to develop your communication skills quickly. The ability to give constructive and timely feedback to employees who need it is an uncommon but much-needed skill.
  2. Make you get crystal clear with your instructions. Most employees don't intentionally try to disregard instructions. More often when employees mess up, it's because they didn't understand the instructions, didn't bother to ask clarifying questions, or assumed they already knew how to accomplish the task at hand. When you're clear about what you want, it's more difficult for someone to bring you back anything less.
  3. Cause you to solidify your vision of the office culture you want to create. Whether you're the CEO or a mid-level project manager, your team has a culture with prevailing beliefs and attitudes about your business, clients, market, and each other. When that vision is challenged -- either intentionally or not- you're forced to outline to your team specifically what that culture is and how it's been compromised.
  4. Help you build the team's confidence. One of the biggest issues that problem employees create is not their negative behavior itself but the way they expose their manager's lack of response to that behavior. All the team wants is for the issue to be addressed and for everyone to move on. When you get to the root of the problem, prescribe a solution, hold your employee accountable for that plan, and then fire them if no progress is made you do two things at the same time. Those two important things are correcting the problem and building the team's confidence in you.
  5. Help you impress your leadership and clients. Similar to the positive gains among your other employees, your boss and clients will notice your ability to handle the tricky situation. It's not the lack of problems that impresses others, it's your ability to handle them in a timely and fair manner.

So, while it's frustrating to have to work with difficult people, you should thank them. They're going to be the employees who help you learn and grow the most as a manager. That said, you can do everything right as a manager and still face issues from a problem employee. And that's when you seriously think about then take the appropriate steps to fire them.

Whatever the outcome, developing these good managerial skills ensures that workplace issues are recognized and addressed in a timely manner. When you see the problem and know what you need to do, you can fix it before it becomes too disruptive. The result benefits everyone because increasing productivity, confidence, and morale.