How to Manage Difficult Staff

Veteran administrators offer nine tips to address issues quickly and effectively.

September, 2016, Volume 40, Issue 1

With a combined seven decades of experience from the classroom to administrative leadership positions, Stephanie Johnson and Diane Watkins have managed an array of difficult personalities at a variety of levels. Their professional collaboration and friendship has allowed for shared strategies to help other administrators manage human resources to maximize organizational success.

After serving many years as classroom teachers and then principals, Johnson has worked for the past five years as an assistant professor of education at Hampton University, helping to prepare future administrators for the challenges they will face, while Watkins currently serves as director of assessment and accountability with the Chesapeake Virginia school system. They were recently interviewed together by the Learning First Alliance.


As leaders know, managing any organization involves having to deal with difficult employees. Issues can range from refusing to follow school policy to bullying other staff members. A variety of difficult traits are toxic to the workplace and perpetrators can range from secretaries and custodians to teachers and administrators. Difficult personalities drain time and energy as well as detracting from the primary focus on instruction, so must be addressed quickly and effectively. Some helpful suggestions from Johnson and Watkins include:

  1. As a first step, control your reaction to the situation, particularly if the perpetrator is in a higher level position. Remain respectful and view it as a growth experience and lesson in what not to do.
  2. Take time to observe your staff and establish what is causing the most damage and is the most time-consuming. Address those most difficult personalities and situations first.
  3. Establish good relationships with all staff members as an avenue for learning about challenging situations impacting the school environment about which you may be personally unaware.
  4. Make your zero tolerance policy known and respected. Administration must openly and clearly address what is acceptable and what is not good for the organization.
  5. Meet with difficult personnel to establish expectations and document these conversations.
  6. Create teams that balance different personality challenges.
  7. If you are a new administrator, prioritize what you need to tackle and address change slowly and deliberately.
  8. Many difficult people are difficult in more than one way. Employees with multiple traits of difficulty may need additional assistance from the school division’s Human Resource Department.
  9. Of course, issues related to sexual or other forms of harassment in the workplace must be reported to the Human Resource Department immediately.


Difficult personalities tend to thrive in situations where expectations have not been clearly established and modeled by strong leadership. Failure to manage difficult individuals erodes morale as staff watch to see how leadership will handle such situations. While often time consuming and challenging, it is imperative for administrators to prioritize addressing difficult staff members to maintain a cohesive school environment.

Strong leaders also need to prioritize relationship-building to help pave the way to having both positive and difficult conversations as well as establishing team environments where everyone feels empowered to impact workplace negativity. The personal touch of knowing employees well enough to have conversations on a meaningful level provides incentive for staff to work with you for positive change.

The Learning First Alliance has published this article, which features more great ideas and resources from the interview with Johnson and Watkins.

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