One of the most frustrating and time-consuming aspects of every manager’s role is dealing with a difficult person on their team. But getting good at managing the most challenging employee can be well worth the time and effort invested, even if it doesn’t seem it at the time. Not only will you demonstrate top-notch leadership skills to ‘the powers that be’, but you’ll also be role modelling for those you are developing to be a leader – which looks great on you!
There are all kinds of difficult people to manage or to work with: the know-it-all’s, passive-aggressive’s, quiet sulker’s, loud mouths, pity partier’s etc. And while you can develop specific strategies for managing each type, I have found there are a few general approaches for dealing with ANY difficult person that are often successful:
1. Understand Your Own Type
I know what you’re thinking…’Hey, I’m not the one who is difficult, so why start with me?’ Well, that is because when you understand yourself, you can better strategize how to flex your style to effectively communicate with others. It also helps you recognize why some people drive you to the brink and press your buttons more than others. There are many assessment tools that can be used to develop a greater understanding of your own personality type and how you affect others. DISC, Kolbe and Myers Briggs are quite common and a good place to start; it doesn’t matter which tool you use as long as you do the homework on self-discovery.
2. Understand Each Of Your Team Member’s Type
Unsurprisingly, I also recommend understanding the personality type of each of your team – not just the difficult one! Teams are like living organisms; they have reliance and dependency on one other. People get along much better when they learn to appreciate the nuances and differences of each other. Personality assessments provide a non-threatening, consistent language that facilitates the breaking down of communication barriers.
3. Be CANDID!
This is not for the faint of heart. Being clear and candid with a difficult person is not easy for most people, yet it is the single most important first step in managing the situation. Regardless of the different types of ‘difficult people’, when you can articulate the issue head on, you’ll make better progress. Help them to understand how their behaviour is impacting the office, the team or any key stakeholders. Good ol’ Dr. Phil says, "You can't change what you don't acknowledge", and that holds true here too. You have to call out what the problem is, particularly when it is causing trouble with others. The way to do this is by clarifying the effect the person’s behaviour is having on others without judgement and blame.
A great reference for how to frame these conversations is a book called Crucial Confrontations. Just as the title implies, confronting is crucial! Regardless of how awkward the situation, when you deal with it with compassion and the right intentions, you can work with the person to find solutions.
4. Look For An Underlying Issue
I’m not saying you should give them an excuse for their ‘difficultness’, but you may find that something may be at the root of their behaviour issues and knowing this will give you a clue for how to manage it.
I once worked with a man who, when heard on the phone with his wife, was clearly in a dictatorial relationship – he was a doormat at home, but a tyrant at the office! Once we realized that he had a need to feel in control because he had zero control outside of work, we were able to adapt how we dealt with issues to give him some measure of power within his work. Very quickly, he stopped battling everyone else.
Simply put, if you can spot the underlying issue, you can adapt your response. It takes a little thoughtfulness, but it absolutely works.
5. Tap Into Empathy
Sometimes you have to walk in someone else’s shoes to understand where they are coming from. Try to put yourself in their situation to understand their point of view before jumping to conclusions. Did you know CCL research shows that, “Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.”
In today’s social media rich world we are terribly quick to label a difficult person and criticize before taking time to understand who they are and how they view life. In the workplace, it is a big win when you can find the bridge into their way of thinking – you can then help by making a connection and break down the issues.
6. Accept 100% Responsibility For Your Response
I often say, no one can make you FEEL anything – how you choose to respond to any tough situation is all up to you. The fact that someone is driving you crazy is a direct reflection of how you are responding to somebody else’s ways. This is completely within your control. This is a tremendously liberating concept when you realize you have the ability to control your response. Brian Tracy - Free Your Mind: How You Are Responsible offers a great snapshot for just how to accomplish this!
When it gets really tough dealing with a difficult person and you are about ready to give up or you’ve been trying to follow HR guidance and still not getting at the heart of the matter, give Dots Leadership Solutions a call – we have a kit bag of approaches that have worked very effectively. We also have some great assessment tools and can be available to plan for or facilitate discussions if you need an objective third party!
Elaine Adamson is a leadership consultant with Dots Leadership Solutions Inc. A natural dot connector. Passionate about coaching team effectiveness and leadership development she shares over 25+ years of real-life tips and tricks that really work!
Elaine believes you can discover and leverage strengths to forge a strong team dynamic despite business challenges or organizational change.