Leading When They Won't Follow

If you haven't experienced it yet as a supervisor/Program Lead/BCBA, you will: Being in charge of those who want no one in charge of them.

Sounds like a riddle or something. But in real life, it's much less humorous.

As someone in a leadership position (regardless of your actual title), you probably imagined your job would include lots of mentoring, providing support and encouragement, staying available to your team, selflessly putting their needs before your own, and definitely.. absolutely.. NOT being like that one supervisor you had who was just the worst.
You probably imagined your team or supervisees would accept your teaching and support with gladness, gratitude, and a huge "Thank you so much, you're the best!".

So it can be a pretty big let down when instead your efforts are met with disdain, condescension, irritation, or just flat out insubordination.
When no one is implementing your behavior plan.
Or no one on the team ever replies to your emails.
Or your supervisee requests to work with a different BCBA.

Again, if you haven't experienced this yet, just give it time. It's darn near impossible to move into a position of leadership and never have to deal with difficult people. Actually, I would say the higher up in leadership you climb, the more opportunity you have to deal with difficult people.

So if I may, I'd like to offer some tips for this daunting challenge. Here is what I've found helpful in the past:

First, check yourself -

1.      Are you making a difficult situation worse by being overly offended, getting all wrapped up in your feelings, and assuming the person hates you just because they don’t listen to you? Guess what? When you are the boss, everyone won’t like you. There really is no way around that. Stop taking things so personally.
2.      Have you calmly and clearly communicated your expectations, specified the areas where they aren’t being met, and helped the difficult person create an action plan? No? Why not?
3.      Do you spend more time at work complaining about the difficult person, rather than talking to the difficult person? Come on, be honest.
4.      Have you lost your objectivity? Do you get tense, sigh heavily, and roll your eyes every time this person calls you or sends you an email? If so, then your irritation is likely coming through in your interactions with this person.

After you have honestly looked at your own behavior (do not skip that part, it’s really important), now it’s time to take a good look at your supervisee/employee -

1.      Is this an issue of poor fit? Sometimes you have to taste the food to know you don’t like it. Similarly, some people need to start working for the company, or hold the position, before realizing it isn’t for them. Have an open conversation with the difficult staff about their current contentment with their role/the company.
2.      Look at the reinforcement history: has this person had good supervision/leadership experiences before? How do you compare to their previous leaders? Are they simply not used to having high expectations placed on them? It's hard to follow when you've never been led.
3.      What career goals does this person have? One of the most effective ways I have found for dealing with difficult supervisees is to help them connect their personal career goals to their current work performance. For example, if you know the staff is pursuing their BCBA then help them connect the dots between being able to accept feedback now, and how much more challenging it will be to accept feedback you don’t agree with as a BCBA. These clinical “soft skills” only become more important the higher up you go in this field, so it’s important to learn professionalism and humility now.
4.      Lastly, are you dealing with a toxic employee? If so, then move straight to GO, and collect $200. 😊 Unfortunately, a toxic employee has the potential to bring so much harm to staff morale, client satisfaction, and work culture, that it may be a better decision for the sake of the whole team to part ways, and wish them the best of luck with their next employer.

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