Mastering the juggle when leading disagreeable yet highly effective employees

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Over the Easter break, I caught up with a friend who I hadn’t seen for quite some time. In fact, I realised just how long it had been when her ‘toddler’ (who I vividly remember playing with the last time we caught up) opened the front door and before I had even walked in, told me that he was turning seven in a few weeks before running back down the hallway. 

After the three of us had lunch together, the nearly seven-year-old ‘assumed the position’ on the sofa in the living room, put on his headphones and became engrossed in something on his iPad for nearly two hours. 

My friend and I stayed at the kitchen table and caught up on the last five years. 

When I asked her a question about Paxton (her son), she glanced over towards the living room and when she was sure he was suitably distracted by whatever was happening on the iPad, she took a deep breath and said, “Sometimes he’s terrific. But most of the time he’s just so difficult. He disagrees with everything I ask him to do”. 

I didn’t want to say that I was under the impression that most kids will usually disagree with their parents (after all, I’m not a parent). Instead, I chose to let her vent about the relentless arguments and constant frustrations. 

A few days later, in one of my first leadership coaching sessions after the long weekend, I happened to ask my client how things were going with one of his team members who he had flagged during our previous meeting as being ‘problematic’. He also took a pretty deep breath before saying, “There may have been a slight improvement. But he’s just so toxic. He disagrees with everything I ask him to do”. 

I kid you not. The way my client described his team member was exactly how my friend had described her son. 

I couldn’t hide my smile and when he asked me what I’d found amusing, I told him about Paxton. 

Now, whilst I am not a parent, I have had plenty of experience as a leader, so I quickly pointed out that ‘disagreeable’ doesn’t equate to ‘difficult’; and it certainly doesn’t mean ‘toxic’. 

Disagreeable employees can, in fact, be highly effective employees. 

This is certainly not the forum for providing parental tips on being aware of the differences between disagreeable and difficult children. However, it is important for leaders to be able to distinguish between disagreeable and toxic team members. After all, disagreeable employees can often bring valuable skills and perspectives to a team or organisation, and they can also be highly effective in certain roles, particularly those involving negotiation or requiring tough decision making. 

Think about your own experiences as a leader.  

When have you had a team member occasionally be argumentative or blunt? How quick were you to perhaps denounce them as being toxic simply for challenging the status quo or expressing a contrary opinion during a conversation? 

Being argumentative, confrontational, expressing frustration, or perhaps appearing aloof or indifferent are simply traits of a disagreeable individual. On the other hand, a toxic employee will bully (or abuse) as opposed to challenge, intentionally sabotage other people’s work, engage in unethical behaviour, or constantly blame others and refuse to take ownership or responsibility for their mistakes. 

As a leader, it’s important to be attuned to these often quite subtle differences and to respond accordingly. 

Disagreeable employees may require coaching to help them better understand the impact of their behaviour on others. However, if dealing with a toxic employee, you may find yourself having to resort to more serious intervention and potentially disciplinary action. 

One thing I made sure to reinforce to my client during our discussion the other day, is that a leader should never assume (or believe) that coaching should miraculously turn a disagreeable employee into an ‘agreeable’ one. This would be completely unrealistic. Coaching can certainly help an employee improve their communication style, however it can’t (nor should it) attempt to force an employee to agree with anything or anyone. 

For many leaders today, the default reaction towards a disagreeable employee is to pressure them into becoming agreeable. This is unlikely to happen. It requires maturity from a leader to let go of the cookie cutter approach of trying to make such an employee just like everyone else. Instead, try to leverage their qualities such as being assertive or being an independent thinker. 

Simply telling a disagreeable employee to be more agreeable does not set them up for success.  

Research into team dynamics and organisational behaviour has revealed that many top performers are in fact those who are high on conscientiousness and low on agreeableness (not too low, of course).  

From personal experience and having been responsible for hundreds of people throughout my own career (many of whom I would certainly describe as disagreeable!), I can also admit that several were also highly effective and would often push for change or for solutions to be implemented; tell people (including me on several occasions) what we actually needed to hear; and took action against poor behaviour whether internal or on the part of a client.  

At no point would I ever have described them as toxic (or ‘difficult’ for that matter). 

If you ever find yourself leading a disagreeable employee, you will need to tweak your leadership style to their individual needs and preferences.  

For example, disagreeable individuals appreciate direct and straightforward communication so avoid vague or ambiguous language. They typically prefer to work independently, so give them the autonomy to make decisions and take ownership of their work. Set clear goals and expectations for their work as disagreeable employees tend to be more focused on results than social norms.  

It’s also important to be consistent in your expectations and treatment of all team members since they are less tolerant of inconsistency. However, disagreeable employees will be more likely to respect you if they feel valued, supported, and motivated to do their best work, and if you can demonstrate your expertise and provide them with opportunities to learn from you. 

Dealing with disagreeable but highly effective employees can be a challenging situation for any leader. On the one hand, you want to retain their valuable skills and contributions to the team. On the other hand, their behaviour can negatively impact team morale and productivity. 

It’s a balancing act, and whilst we have shared some tips on how to lead disagreeable team members, it’s still important to know when to let go to protect the team and maintain a positive work environment. 

Remember hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, perhaps even helping leaders master the juggle when it comes to leading disagreeable yet highly effective employees. 

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