Type A’s and Type B’s: Handling Difficult Staff Members

Type A’s and Type B’s: Handling Difficult Staff Members

Handling Difficult Staff Members


We’ve been known to drop the odd baseball references on this blog from time to time, so here is another: The Yankee teams of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Even fans outside the Big Apple remember the widely publicized verbal (and sometimes physical) fights between star players, a manager who thought himself an unquestionable genius, and an owner who simply could not help but micro-manage from the luxury seats. For several summers that dugout was a powder keg, the clubhouse perpetually toxic. Somehow, this Bronx-based combustion engine produced four pennants and two world championships.

So, what is the takeaway here? That some people work very well amidst conflict and dysfunction, while others even seem to feed and thrive on it, and to great end-results. As a physician and the head of your practice, you must ask yourself if this is this the type of office you really want to run on a daily basis. Are you content to be a demanding tyrant overseeing an office team of mercenaries who work incredibly well in spite of you, and one another? Or would you prefer a close-knit group who look to you for fair and equitable leadership, excel together, and rely on each other to reach common daily, weekly, and monthly goals, regardless of who the “star” is?

Let’s assume you’ve chosen the latter, because as the boys in pinstripes learned, sustaining the former over a period of many years is not only improbable, it is downright impossible. Below are some thing you can do to keep your staff relations positive, as well a few red flags to look out for.

Difficult personalities

They come in many different packages, and are motivated by different things. Some need constant guidance, and seem determined to do as little as possible, while others not only do their job, but try and do yours as well. The latter, above all else, has to be right, and is convinced they know something you don’t. Some are fiercely competitive, while others, uninterested in distinguishing themselves, seem to just crave conflict.

While different, the one thing to remember when dealing with difficult subordinates is to refuse to give in to conflict. Becoming angry and arguing only breeds feelings of rejection and contempt, effectively arming a difficult staff member to continue what they’ve been doing all along.

The art of resolving issues

There are right ways and wrong ways to approach conflict resolution, in the workplace or anywhere else. If a member of your staff, even a highly valued member, is exhibiting behaviors you believe alienate or disrespect you or the other members of your team, it is imperative that the problem be addressed privately, and professionally. Airing out the dirty laundry in earshot of others only creates the impression that your aim is to belittle this individual, hindering communication from the outset. Once in private, set the pace by organizing your thoughts, and then engage in an amicable tone. Begin with an open-ended question like, “what’s been going on of late?” This will get more traction than immediately leveling contempt and blame for certain actions, behaviors, or mistakes.

Assigning blame often turns into a fruitless game of hot-potato. A common reaction from a defiant staff member in this situation will be to deflect it right back at you. This stage becomes a kind of Zen paradox: you must be firm and unyielding, and at the same time calm, and pliable. Sometimes, simply validating their point can be enough to disarm a fighter like this. You didn’t give in to them, but simply gave their ego the nourishment it craved. Something else to remember about your highly competitive, or otherwise ego-centric workers is that when faced with a clear, rational argument, they will often voluntarily disengage. Why? Out of fear of being proved wrong, or looking bad.

The ability to empathize and relate is incredibly important, as is the word “we”. Let certain, more easily overwhelmed staff know that they are valued, that everyone has a part to play, and what you need from them equates to success for everyone at the practice. Under the right set of circumstances, asking them what you may be able to do to help them facilitate change can yield great results. Let them know that you are available for guidance, but be firm in that you expect them to finish every task economically and accurately.

Fair and equal treatment

Admit it, you have a favorite. That one staff member who can prioritize, time-manage, handle novel situations with quick-thinking and poise, and showcases clear leadership qualities. Sometimes these darlings own advanced degrees, like a PA, or an NP (one those big “free agent acquisitions” we discussed in a previous post). Conventional wisdom dictates that you reward these workers for their efforts, and they certainly deserve it. But lavishing praise and rewards on your best people can lead to alienating others, many of whom do work to the best of their abilities. This breeds discontent, and creates a factious working environment.

Rewards for outstanding work should be uniform. Sporadic bonuses, raises, and personal favors done for high achieving staff won’t go unnoticed by others. Communication between you and employees should be consistent across the board as well. You must be accessible and personable to everyone, not just your star workers.

It may seem like a tired idiom, but there is still no room for “I” in team. As the person in charge, it is up to you to decide what kind of practice you run. Even if you have an office manager running the day-to-day business, remember, it’s your name on the sign outside. Do everything you can to make sure that your place of work doesn’t become synonymous with daily strife, apathy, and favoritism.


Brian Torchin

| HCRC Staffing | |

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