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4 Ways to Deal With an Overly Aggressive Employee

Helping an aggressive employee can benefit the team, the work, and ultimately their own career.

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BY Anne Sugar - 10 Jan 2019

how to deal with aggressive employee

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

When you're a manager, having an aggressive employee can be a good thing. After all, they're often Type A performers who won't stop until they deliver their results.

But there's also a cost associated with aggressive behavior, most notably collateral damage to coworkers.

Here are some ways to rein in an aggressive employee -- for the benefit of the team, the work, and ultimately their own career.

1. Take a look at whether you're inadvertently causing the behavior.

Many times, leaders try to diagnose the situation externally, looking only at the employee's behavior and not their role in the matter. In my coaching experience, I have seen situations where an employee becomes aggressive as a response to a lack of feedback, or a manager setting up a competitive environment to get the work done.

Managers are often entirely unaware of their role in this dynamic: a classic blind spot. This is where it can be useful to seek out external perspectives, such as discussing the situation with a trusted coach or taking an assessment where blind spots can be objectively illuminated through third party data. The issue may be entirely your employee's, but it's important not to pin it on her too soon before looking at your own culpability.

2. Gather external data points to document the issue.

Just as you sought an outside perspective to look at your own role, the employee needs that, as well. He or she may be unaware of how they're coming across, or think their aggressive reputation is a minor inconvenience achieved in service of a greater good: performance.

You'll need hard facts, such as a 360 assessment(a process to gather data from sources such as manager, peers, and team members) to convince her that it's a problem. Even if the employee thinks they are easy to work with on a daily basis, the feedback can be helpful in showing them that others beg to differ.

For instance, I once worked with a client who was surprised to learn that others were bothered by what they viewed as his aggressive communication style. "I thought that's how effective leaders did things," he told me when we were going over the results. When confronted with the evidence, he agreed to make adjustments.

3. Provide "pre-game coaching" to your aggressive employee.

Even when your employee is open to change, they may not know how to do it. A manager I worked with had an aggressive employee who used a very blunt method to communicate with his team, which alienated many of his colleagues. The employee knew it was a problem, but wasn't sure how else he could provide feedback effectively.

Each week, his manager sat with him to think through and diagnose recent conversations, and plan out future ones. For instance, he suggested the employee create a decision tree in his head prior to any sensitive discussion, to think about whether a given team member responded better to very direct feedback, or preferred a more subtle approach.

4. Refocus the employee to leverage their strengths.

In some cases, you just can't change a team member, but firing them isn't the only option. Think about how can you leverage their aggressive behavior in a positive direction, such as putting them on a difficult task or assignment that will cause limited damage to others.

For instance, a sales director I worked with had to sell a software platform while facing impossible deadlines. He decided to give his aggressive employee a leading role, because he knew his hard driving tendencies could be an asset. Indeed, the employee leveraged his "never take no for an answer" style and turned the project into a major success.

Another option to use your employee's aggressiveness for good is to ask them to coach a timid colleague to become a bit bolder. For example, in one company I worked with, an aggressive finance employee coached one of her team members on how to repel excuses from employees who failed to turn in timesheets at the end of the quarter - helping the company become far more efficient.

As a leader, you need all different types of team members to get the work done. But an aggressive team member, left unchecked, can derail the work and the reputation of your group.

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