How Project Managers Can Deal With Difficult Team Members

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So much of project management is grounded in how well your team performs. Before budgets, Gantt charts, and risk analysis, project managers need to make sure that they have an efficient process.

And sometimes team members make that difficult.


Some project managers chalk their team member’s inefficiency up to some unalterable personality trait—the team member is lazy, or entitled, or is too bossy. But poor team management may also be at the heart of this issue.

How so, you might ask?

To start with, your team members may be mirroring your own behavior.

Angry businessman shouting to an employee

If you are an aggressive project manager, you are setting the tone for your entire office. Psychology Today notes, “Brain imaging has revealed that our brains actually experience what others experience. When someone smiles at us, we spontaneously smile. When someone screams in pain, we cringe.”

In other words, mirroring others’ behavior is a form of empathy, something that most people experience (even if we haven’t had our morning cup of coffee).

If you regularly have a negative attitude, berate your coworkers, or are simply slacking on the job, your team members are bound to notice. In an odd way, it’s a show of flattery that they’re mirroring you—but it’s bad for business. As a leader, you set the tone for your office—make sure that you’re checking your own behavior before criticizing that of others.

But sometimes the tone you’re setting isn’t the problem.

Sometimes it’s your expectations. Or lack thereof.

Confusion Concept.

If your objectives aren’t clear, team members can come across as lazy. Psychology Today also reports that, “Procrastination is not just an issue of time management or laziness… Ambiguous directions and vague priorities increase procrastination. The boss who asserts that everything is high priority and due yesterday is more likely to be kept waiting.”

Sometimes having unclear goals is a reflection of the PM’s own lack of direction. One way to fix that internally is using project management software to help organize the project’s process. The collaboration and milestone tracking features found in programs like Mavenlink and Wrike allow project managers to detail specific goals along with timelines and expectations for their team members. And trust me—team members will be grateful. Not only will they be more responsive to your vision for the project direction, but they’ll also accomplish more in an expedient fashion.

After you’ve exhausted these options and you still have a no-good very-bad team member, it’s time to confront them head on.

picture of boss and worker at work having conflict

If your team member is being rude to other team members, ignoring the clear deadlines you have set out for them, acting abrasive, or just aren’t syncing well with the rest of your team, it’s time to use your exemplary communication skills and put them to work.

Start by asking them if there’s anything going on in their personal lives. For all you know, they could be coping with a major loss—like divorce or a recent death—and their emotions are spilling over into the work place. Try to empathize with their situation if something is going on.

Next, offer to help them figure out their work problems. Do they need more support? Clearer expectations? Quicker notifications to get started on a project? Is there something that you’re doing that isn’t clicking with them? Even if it’s just assigning them new tasks, you can see a coworker’s behavior turn around by simply restructuring how they do their jobs.

Finally, take the time to build a personal-professional relationship with your coworker. Try one-on-one team-building exercises and try to help integrate him or her into the broader team community. Don’t talk about them behind their back—if you want your team mates to accept your difficult team member, you will have to be the role model.

And if that doesn’t work?

You're Fired Rubber Stamp

Okay, maybe it won’t be that dramatic, but it may be time to bring in human resources after you’ve exhausted all other mediation. Submit a formal complaint about the employee.

Hopefully, though, the abovementioned solutions will help you avoid bringing in HR altogether. Sometimes, it’s the smallest tweaks to how you run your office that can lead to the greatest changes of behavior.


How do you think project managers can deal with difficult team members? How have you dealt with them in the past? Did any of these strategies help? Leave your answers in the comments below!

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

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About the Author

Rachel Burger

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Rachel is a content strategist for Targetprocess, a project management tool dedicated to scalable and accessible visual management. She specializes in project management tips, tools, and tricks, and continues to play a foundational role in recognizing and strategizing for the future of Agile in the workplace. On the rare occasion Rachel isn't writing, she's reading, hiking, jogging, or spending time with her friends and family.


I am currently dealing with such a situation where my team is so cool about work that they consider it to be going on for a picnic rather than work. I have tried talking to them one-on-one and nothing much has worked out. One of them, say ‘abc’ pointed back to me saying I have negative things stuck in my mind about him and there is no fault from his end. But the fact is, he rarely works and is always busy surfing internet. Being the Team Lead, just since few months, I am in dilemma about how to handle these ‘difficult’ team members with cool ‘attitude’. I am not sure of the consequences of escalating this to higher management. Hopeful of finding out some way….

I have a senior team member who is disrespectful and not compliant…she has a sense of entitlement where she feel she is owed something. She is immature and unprofessional in her behavior and makes fellow teammates feel uncomfortable. She has been her role for several years and feels she knows what is best no matter how it effects others as long as it’s to her benefit. She will make whatever decision she wants even if she has been advised otherwise because she stubbornly believes she is always correct. She knows no other roles but hers and refuses to learn or help out in any other facilities. Yet if she doesn’t want to complete a task she will just blow it off until someone else has to complete it. Yet she expects help in her role when she is behind and it doesn’t Matter if fellow teammates sufferer in their job responsibilities as long as her job is completed. Yet all the other teammates are compliant and willing to learn whatever is asked of them And know and understand several different roles and job responsibilities. She has been spoken to but does not take it to heart and continues her same behavior. She is very difficult to work with and doesn’t try to work as a team at all. She makes the work environment uncomfortable and sometimes unbearable to deal with. It’s very difficult, frustrating and disheartening to deal with on a day to day basis. I’m the team lead and always treat everyone one same with respect yet she continues to challenge me and completely destroys the team spirit. I am beyond frustrated as I am left with my heads tied after addressing this with my manager several times and knowing he has addressed her and still she no change. What do I do?

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