Five Solutions for Resistant Employees

As someone who does a lot of leadership training, I am surprised by how training is frequently used as the solution for all staff problems when something else might be more effective. The main factor of success involves doing a proper assessment of the situation, so before we can get to the solutions, we must understand the root causes. W. Edwards Deming says, “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”

Whenever you are asking something of an employee and aren’t getting the desired results, there are four questions that need to be asked:

  1. Does the employee know what to do?
  2. Does the employee know how to do it?
  3. Does the employee want to do it?
  4. Does the environment support the behavior you are seeking?

Usually, when you are faced with a resistant employee, your natural tendency is to first believe the problem is #3–they just don’t want to do it. This is because when you want something from someone and they aren’t cooperating with you, then it feels personal. The normal response is to think this person is trying to make your life miserable. Sometimes the problem is that the employee doesn’t want to do what’s expected but it usually is not personal. When someone doesn’t want to do what is asked, it may go against their values or simply be something they don’t see the benefit of. Let’s look at the first two possibilities before discussing motivation. Sometimes resistance comes from not know what to do or not knowing how to do it.

If the employee doesn’t know what to do, then either simple information or training may be appropriate. The employee needs to understand what is being asked of him. This information can be delivered in a training or simply given as part of supervision depending on the complicated nature of it. Because you’ve told someone what to do, you may assume they know what to do. However, upon further investigation you may find they still don’t know. W. Edwards Deming also says, “It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best.”

If the employee doesn’t know how to do what is being asked, training, mentoring, and coaching could all be part of the solution. It is always better to show people what you want them to do rather than tell them. Sometimes because you’ve told someone how to do something, you may assume they know how. However, the truth is you can tell someone and they may still not know but pretend as if they do. Sometimes this is because they think there will be consequences for asking clarifying questions or they may just be secure about asking their supervisor questions.

If you’ve assessed the employee knows what to do and how to do it, but they still aren’t cooperating, then it might be because they don’t want to do it or the environment doesn’t support the expected outcomes.

If the problem is motivation, the employee doesn’t want to do it, then no amount of training is going to take care of this problem. When an employee doesn’t want to do something, it is imperative for the manager to find a way to explain the usefulness of what he or she is asking of the employee. You want your people to know how what you are asking is going to benefit them, the team or the company. You need to tap into their internal motivation. Find what means something to them and help connect the dots from something they want to something you are asking from them.

The final question to ask if the person wants to do what you are asking, knows what to do, and how to do it but still isn’t complying, you need to take a step back from the individual and take a look at the culture or system of your organization and dissect it to determine what exists within the system that prevents compliance with your request. Most problems at work are not a problem with individuals but rather a problem with the system. When you can stand back far enough to get the proper perspective, you can usually locate the problem with the system and fix it. If you need help figuring it out, just ask your workers. They will know what the problem is.

So far I’ve shared four things to do with resistant employees, but I promised five. The fifth thing you sometimes need to do is to let someone go. This is usually a last resort but when you learn that an employee knows what to do and how, and there’s no systemic problem preventing compliance, then it’s likely your employee just doesn’t want to do it and isn’t likely to comply. When this happens, don’t waste time trying to fit the proverbial square peg in a round hole. If you have a job that will suit this person’s strengths, you may want to do a lateral transfer but when that’s not an option, you will want to make plans to help your employee move on to a position or job that he will be happier doing, where the powers that be will appreciate his particular strengths. Whenever possible, you want to do this in cooperation and conjunction with your employee. This way you will not have to deal with the disgruntled employee and the damage that person can do to your company’s reputation. Whenever you can come to an agreement about finding a new time, there will be no conflict and bad feelings.

  1. To summarize, if an employee doesn’t know what to do, teach or show him.
  2. If your worker doesn’t know how to do it, then train, mentor or coach her.
  3. If your employee doesn’t want to do what you’re asking, you must help him understand why it’s important to comply and how it will benefit him.
  4. If the problem is systemic, locate the problem and create a solution.
  5. If, no matter what you do, you can’t get compliance, you will want to make a plan for your employee to move forward somewhere else.





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