Top 10 Tips to Deal with Problem Soldiers

As a leader, you need to know how to deal with problem Soldiers.  If you supervise people, you will eventually have some problem Soldiers that challenge you as a leader.  It’s inevitable.   Therefore, I want to provide my Top 10 Tips to Deal with Problem Soldiers.  I hope this helps.

# 1 Do Not be Intimidated

In some cases, this is easier said than done.  Some Soldiers have strong personalities or strong physiques.  However, your job as a leader is to “be the boss.”  You must remain in control of the situation at all times.  Don’t let your subordinates boss you around, make you feel threatened or tell you what to do.  In many cases, that’s what they are trying to do.  You need to hold your ground, stay strong, and be firm.

# 2 Treat Others with Respect

Follow the Golden Rule.  Treating others with respect will get you a long ways in life.  When you talk to people, remember they are a human being first, then they are a Soldier.  Some people come from rough upbringings and have been mentally abused, or treated bad, most of their life.  Treat people the way you want to be treated.  This one rule alone will take you pretty far in life (and in the military).

# 3 Put Everything in Writing

I call it the “Power of the Pen.”  This is without a doubt the most effective way to handle situations as a leader.  Whenever you face a problem, take out a counseling form DA Form 4856 and put everything in writing.  This creates a paper trail and lets your Soldier know that you are serious.  Verbal warnings have nowhere near as much effect as a written counseling.  Don’t forget to use the Magic Bullet Statement either.

# 4 Set a Good Example

As leaders, we are role models.  We need to set a good example for others to follow.  That means we need to look and act like a leader at all times.  We need to treat others well and we need to do the right thing.  Our Soldiers watch us closely and will do what we do.

#5 Praise Things They Do Right

If you only address things a Soldier does wrong, the Soldier will keep doing things wrong.  You need to provide praise when your Soldier does something right, especially if they are a problem Soldier.  In many cases, the Soldiers will want “more” praise, so they will keep doing things right.  You can praise Soldiers with an “atta boy” a written thank you card, a unit coin, or even a firm handshake.  When possible, punish in private and praise in public.

# 6 Deal with Issues Immediately

The sooner you deal with an issue the better.  You know, you shouldn’t punish a dog for doing something 2-3 days after they did it.  If you do that, the dog won’t know why you are punishing them.  The same holds true for dealing with difficult Soldiers.  When something goes wrong, deal with the issue immediately.  The sooner the better.

# 7 Issue Punishments Differently for Each Soldier

People react to different punishments in different ways.  For a punishment to be effective, you need to find out what is important to them, and then choose your punishment accordingly.  It’s like kids; some kids react to timeouts, others need to be suspended, others need to lose their cell phone or video games, etc.  Follow the same concept with your Soldiers.  This is what leadership is all about.

# 8 Always Stay Calm, Cool and Collected

When you get angry, your Soldier wins.  In many cases, they perform badly just to see you “blow up.”  Don’t be that way.  Try to always keep your composure and be a professional.  If you get real angry, count to ten so you have a few seconds to cool down before you deal with the situation.  I know this is easier said than done, but it is every important.

# 9 Find Out the Root Cause of the Problem

In most cases, bad behavior is a symptom, not the problem itself.  You need to get to the root cause of the problem.  For instance, maybe your Soldier is behaving badly because they are having marital problems at home.  Maybe they didn’t get their bonus like they were supposed to.  Or, maybe your other Soldiers are giving them a hard time and you don’t know about it.  You need to ask questions.  This means you need to sit down with your problem Soldier and find out what is really going on.

# 10 Separate or Discharge Soldiers That Cannot Conform

If you’ve followed most of the tips mentioned above, and you still can’t get the Soldier to conform, you should consider separating them or discharging them from the service.  Remember, the military isn’t Jerry’s Kids.  We are a professional, war-fighting machine.  Some people don’t belong in the military, even though they made it through Basic Training.  If your Soldier does not have the potential to be a good Soldier, discharge them from the service.  You will be doing them a favor.

Bonus Tip

As a special bonus tip, I would like to remind you to NOT spend all of your time exclusively with your problem Soldiers.  You need to remember that your job as a leader is to develop your subordinates.  That means you need to spend lots of time mentoring your GOOD Soldiers too.  You should spend at least 60% of your time, maybe more, taking care of your good Soldiers and preparing them for positions of increased responsibility.  I know how easy it is to forget to do that.  You have to always be aware of how you are spending your time, and you need to spend time with your good Soldiers too.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, these are my Top 10 Tips on How to Deal with Problem Soldiers.  I truly believe this advice applies to any service branch and to civilians as well.  Being a leader is a tough job, but your responsibility is to take the good and bad.  When you get a problem Soldier, follow the advice in this article and you should be able to handle the issue effectively.  Good luck!

What are your thoughts?  What are your best tips for dealing with difficult or problem Soldiers? Do you have any questions?  Just leave a comment to this post to share your thoughts.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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12 thoughts on “Top 10 Tips to Deal with Problem Soldiers”

  1. I have been assigned the only SPC in my unit and this soldier has been a thorn in my side from the gate. I have done my best to pull them aside and not reprimand them in front of others, I have texted, I have emailed… several times… reminding this person that I am their Team Leader and their first line leader… but they keep bypassing me and when I remind the soldier that they are supposed to go through me, all I get is “roger”, but then they keep bypassing me and not checking in with me during drill weekends. I’m at my wits end and have done my best to keep my kool, but I am completely irritated! I don’t like writing up soldiers because I was given a chance now and again. But I did not look the gift horse in the mouth. I changed my behavior. but I feel like by me not writing up this soldier.. that I’m enabling the behavior to persist and I personally don’t think the soldier would even care if I gave them a negative counseling. I don’t want to be seen as an A-Hole NCO, but I also don’t want to keep enabling the bad behavior because my instinct is to throat punch the soldier instead of repeatedly informing him of his insubordination. Need some serious advice..

  2. I used to be in the active duty Infantry. I believe that paper writing not only IS a cookie cutter solution, but it also tells them you aren’t serious. If the 1st thing an Officer does when dealt with adversity is crawl back into his office, I don’t think I can respect him. In combat, or in real life. I’ve always thought the modern Army had it right with conducting physical training and getting down and doing it with them. I also agree with tip #9, but putting it so low is concerning. I’m not saying you need to get these guys a blankey or a binkie, but these are also warfighters. These soldiers are all willing to fight and some die for their Brothers in the unit, and if they see that an Officer is willing to go through the same pains they are, I think they are more willing to comply and relate to their CO. The majority of soldiers join for various reasons and think they fight for country, honor, or their lives. All of them fight and die for their Brothers, as this is the only thing that pay off in the end.

  3. I like the tip about tailoring punishments to fit the soldier. It might not seem fair to some, to hand out different punishments to different people, but it is more fair than taking a cookie cutter approach. If finding out what motivates a person so that you can tailor awards and recognition to fit their needs is a good idea, why wouldn’t taking the same approach to correcting behavior be smart too?

    It is just like children: for example, it you give all of them time out, it may drive some of the nuts, while the others just use it as free time to plot your demise.

  4. Candace Ginestar

    I have a hard time with not letting my blood boil. I am very easy going, and don’t get angry very often, but if my right button is pushed, I will feel it. I don’t yell (very rare circumstances, so they were extremely effective). However, even if I remain in control externally, I hate that feeling of my blood boiling.

  5. Problem soldiers (just like problem students, sons, daughters) watch their leadership’s reactions to their behavior on the job. They may become manipulative depending upon the patterns they observe. Second, the pen is a mighty sword (weapon) that will help Army National Guard leaders or any type of leader to cite activities. Writing can be viewed over and over and tends to be less emotional than impulsive verbal reaction. Last, I wonder if it is okay to take a soldier’s cell phone temporarily as punishment?

    1. Problem soldiers definitely watch how their leaders will react. It’s similar to a small child who tries to test their parent(s) to see what they can get away with it. You have to keep your cool, but deal with the problem immediately.

      It’s also important to know that everyone is wired differently. Punishment that might work for one problem soldier might not work for another problem soldier. That’s why you might have to get creative with your punishments.

      All of the punishments I recommend for problem Soldiers I’ve always found that the power of the pen is the most effective way. Put things in writing and let the soldier know you are serious.

      Just my thoughts.

  6. Neil O'Donnell

    Holding difficult subordinates accountable is key. If you do not, others may lose respect for you and becomes problems as well. I find that praising subordinates for their accomplishments helps to keep them from remaining problems. In the event they do not change, you need to dismiss them for the good of the unit.

    1. The only reason bad Soldiers move up through the ranks is because at one point or another their leader did not hold them accountable. Holding people accountable is not fun or easy, but it’s part of being a leader.

  7. Once again, it is amazing how much your advice on leadership really relates to my teaching experiences. I hate sounding redundant, but it is so true. I had my share of problem students in my experience, and each one is different. But to be a good leader/educator, I had to remember that and not focus all my time and effort on the problem students to the exclusion of rewarding and praising my hard-working ones. These are great tips!

    1. Finding the balance between punishing problem soldiers and rewarding the good soldiers is never easy to do, but it’s vitally important. Good leaders always find a way to get that done.


  8. I really relate to the third piece of advice about putting it into writing. I believe that practice can be extremely helpful and theraputic when it comes to working out most kinds of problems.

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