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DEALING WITH DIFFICULT PEOPLE

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  When we think of someone “difficult” to deal with we typically think of someone resistant, stubborn, disagreeable and unwilling to compromise. At work this might be the employee who regularly sabotages a meeting, a colleague who dominates the team by force of a critical and unsupportive type of personality, a manager who is autocratic and nitpicking, or a good old fashioned bully. People who are difficult, however, also include those who are overly submissive, passive-aggressive, ignore others, and are unmotivated and unwilling to take personal responsibility.

  The most common workplace difficult people are the inherited problem, the bully, and the ego trip. The inherited problem is typically an employee who has been around for some time and is the dominant personality in the team, but who has learned that they rule the roost. Challenges to their authority are met with resistance, at times bullying behaviour, alienation of the party that offends them, and team politics. Often the team is polarised around their followers and the others. The “others” consist of those who oppose the dominant person and those who want nothing to do with the situation and have become desensitised. A new manager comes along, recognises the problem and tries to tackle it. Unfortunately the manager realises that the dominant person has everyone so cowed and unwilling to challenge them, even top management at times, that the new manager feels out on a limb. The inherited problem has learned that he or she has more endurance than the new manager.

  The bully comes in various guises. Interrogation, intimidation, and passive-aggressive techniques are their favourite weapons of war. The interrogator is critical and fault-finding, focuses on details and not the big picture, is impossible to please, and their main form of attack is to undermine peoples’ sense of professional competence. The intimidator is personally aggressive in the way they use their body and voice, reacts with hostility to challenge and questions, sees compromise as weaknesses, is territorial and their main form of attack is to peoples’ sense of personal safety and self-worth. What their targets can do is not questioned but who they are – their character.

  The passive-aggressive bully conquers through division. They are political animals. They can be nice one day and mean the next, and often attack when people are in a weak position and there are few witnesses around. They ostracise, criticise indirectly, and talk behind peoples’ backs but never to their face when others are around. It is this sense of unpredictability and unfairness, and the difficulty victims have in making others understand behaviour they are experiencing, that creates significant health and performance problems long term.

  The ego trip has a deluded sense of their own self-worth, irreplacability, and importance to the organisation. They may be good at what they do, used to be good at what they do, or never were any good at what they do. The point is that their perception is their reality not matter what hard evidence others give them. They do not react well to those who do not give them their due respect, expect to be listened to, and expect to be acknowledged for their expertise. In their own words, “You don’t know how good I am at what I do.” Ironically they’re usually right but they way they go about it often means that their colleagues no longer care how good they are. The ego trip has lost perspective of what is negotiable and non-negotiable. That is why they argue over the smallest things, because to them they are hugely important and symbolic of their personal and professional status.

  At the end of the day what unifies all difficult people is that they resist what we want them do either do or think and they do not want to, or are unable to, accept personal responsibility for their actions. In others words, nothing is their fault. There is always a reason for their bad behaviour, whether that’s a bully yelling at a colleague, an employee quietly sabotaging an initiative, or an impossible to please customer. Managing difficult people successfully requires an understanding of three key issues: the difficult person themselves, the situation at hand, and you.

  People are difficult for a reason and understanding aspects of personality, background, history and expectations provide insights into what is motivating and causing a particular behaviour or pattern of behaviour. The situation at the time can generate a degree of conflict as a result of past experience in similar situations, the personal symbolism and meaningfulness of events for people, and the specific goals of the individuals involved. The final piece of the puzzle is you. How comfortable are you confronting difficult issues and individuals? What expectations do you have of people? What personal issues do you bring to a meeting or casual conversation that affects how you interpret what people say and do? In other words, how we interpret things makes a big difference to getting the outcome we want, even if that outcome is simply the desire to walk away calm (at least on the outside), not to second guess ourselves for hours afterwards, and sleep well that night. Let’s face it, not all difficult people go away and many can only be managed, which comes down to managing their impact on ourselves. For managers and business owners there are a number of strategies that help generate an environment where difficult behaviour is either lessened or makes management of it easier. 

  Firstly, select for fit as well as ability. The old adage that we hire on technical ability and fire on attitude is often right. Willingness to learn, accommodate others, communicate openly, and adapt to the needs of the team rather than the desires of the individual are all important characteristics. Together they minimise the selection of naturally difficult people and help create a group culture where difficult people are less likely to be tolerated.

  Second, implement a thorough induction process where behavioural standards and expectations are made clear, alongside the consequences for breaching those standards. Doing so, provides little excuse for people to say they were not told what behaviour was appropriate or inappropriate, and removes the danger of making assumptions. In other words, assuming that everyone knows what is expected because it is “common sense”.

  Third, manage behaviour as proactively and constructively as you manage performance. It is well recognised that the impact of a bully or resistant colleague on employee engagement, innovation, openness to new ideas, adaptability, and resilience has significant impact on staff health and productivity. Everyone who has any team experience knows that the difference between a team that gets on well and respects each other and one that does not is quite large. If managers and team leaders are expected to manage difficult people, then business owners and senior managers need to provide them the training and support to do so effectively.

  Fourth, make standards clear and reinforce them. Tackle difficult or problematic behaviour straight away, as soon as you have firm evidence. Managing behaviour is problematic because it is grey and vague, subjective, and often un-witnessed by those in positions of authority but it can be done if behavioural standards are upfront and clearly understood by all. Get the advice you need and start communicating to the key people involved as to what behaviour needs to change, why it needs to change, and the consequences to the business and individuals of it not changing.

  Fifth, up-skill key managers and get the right advice. Managers and business owners sometimes do not have the knowledge and skills to manage difficult people the way they wish they did. They may have the desire, but early experience teaches them that the cost can be high in terms of personal time and energy. The cost of mistakes can also be high in legal liability, ruined work relationships, the cost of replacing staff, and the ongoing impact of difficult people in influencing the development of a negative workplace culture.

  With all this in mind it is also important to recognise that there is a difference between a genuinely difficult person and someone who is simply difficult for “you”. Lovers, friends, and workmates will always have debates, robust conversations, disagreements and at, times, be on opposite sides of the fence. Yet we would hardly describe those we like or respect as difficult in general. We understand that their perspective is not one we take personally and their communication with us reflects their understanding of our situation, willingness to listen, and consideration of a perspective different to their own. With genuinely difficult people, however, there is none of this.

  A final tip – plan ahead. Just as a house can’t be built without a plan if you want it to survive more than a few years, the same principle applies to managing difficult people. Planning ensures you think ahead and remain objective. Have courage – and you may just be able to deal with those difficult people better than you thought.