How to deal with argumentative employees

Nearly everyone who has spent time in an office environment has encountered an argumentative employee or co-worker.

Someone who feels they’re never at fault, their opinion is always right, and who deal with confrontation or disagreement by becoming argumentative.

In any work environment, differences of opinion are bound to happen. However, when these differences of opinion result in an argumentative employee disrupting the chain of authority, then you need to deal with these employees promptly. Not only is this behaviour distracting and unprofessional, but it can also negatively impact workplace productivity.

Prepare your approach

To begin with, call HR for advice and to make sure you’re following company protocols. Next, develop clear behavioural goals that you want the employee to follow. It’s not enough to tell someone to stop a behaviour without suggesting a replacement behaviour. Write down specific examples of the behaviour you want them to change and the negative impacts of the behaviour. However, don’t identify more than three related behaviours you want them to change. Finally, write down what you will say, to ensure you don’t fumble over your words.

The employee points to the mistakes of others.
Example scripts:

  • ‘I am not asking you to be responsible for the mistakes of others, but I do need you to correct your own.’
  • ‘Thank you for pointing out that others may be making similar errors. I will follow up on that, but for now, I’d like to talk about the mistakes in your reports.’

The employee discounts their mistakes.
Example scripts:

  • ‘Are you saying that it’s OK that we make these kinds of errors in the team?’
  • ‘What will be the consequences to our customers/department/division if we keep making these types of mistakes?’

The employee argues about trivial matters or changes the subject.
Example scripts:

  • ‘Can you tell me how the printer problem stopped you from handing in your report on time?’
  • ‘I hear that you are upset about some other issues; however today I want to focus on your reports. We can set another time to discuss the other issues if you like.’

Have a contingency plan

Develop a contingency plan, in case the discussion doesn’t go as planned. Identify counter attacks to your examples by considering the following:

  • What are some of the adverse outcomes that could transpire from a discussion not going well?
  • How do managers sometimes compound these issues?
  • How should you handle the fallout?

Prepare at least two strategies for dealing with defensive counter-attacks. Moreover, be prepared for the three typical emotional responses people have to a poor performance discussion.

  • Crying
  • Anger
  • Withdrawal

Consider these reactions the most when developing your contingency plan.

Rehearse your responses

Now that you have your scripts, you need to rehearse them with someone such as another manager. At a minimum, rehearse it in your head. Mental rehearsal builds confidence. And make sure to consider your tone of voice and physical posture as you rehearse.

Facing someone who is frequently argumentative and closed to other points of view is frustrating. It’s a natural inclination to become defensive. However, you need to communicate with the employee respectfully and discuss the problem based on facts rather than emotions. Active intervention is a skill set. But the good news is that like any skill set; it is a skill set that can be learned.


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