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Annette Quinn Effectively managing difficult people

The modern workplace is a complex place. We work with ever changing teams, cross team working, remote working and even global working. On top of this, many people we work with, and for, are people whose company we wouldn’t choose to see seek out, however, we are expected to work productively with them, and achieve results.

Add to this the pressures we face with reduced resources and it’s no wonder we feel that, at times, we are a little difficult and that others are extremely difficult.

In a similar way to defining difficult situations, trying to define what makes a person difficult is entirely subjective. We can all be difficult for a number of reasons, and we all have certain traits that annoy other people. It’s all about finding ways around the difficulty, be they too loud, too quiet, too bossy, too dramatic, or of course, the bully. And is it really difficult people or just difficult behaviour?

There is a standard of behaviour that is expected from all us in the workplace, and it is not unreasonable to expect everyone to work to that standard. But, too often, we ignore negative behaviour, as it seems too much like hard work to tackle and we worry that it is a ‘personality thing’ and will be hard to give objective feedback. This is where having values and behavioural competencies help.


Effectively managing difficult people

If your organisation does not have them, I recommend you look into introducing them. Values are a lot quicker and easier to introduce, and they are, in a sense, a guide as to how we go about our work. I once delivered a mandatory course, where a delegate sat with his arms crossed for the two days, as he didn’t believe in the training provided. I tried lots of ways of getting him involved, but all he would say is “I don’t believe in it”.

If only I had remembered one of the business values was “Treat all visitors with respect” and reminded him of this. It may have made a difference to the training. Values, however, have to be lived, and when someone doesn’t act in line with them, they need to receive that feedback.

Behavioural competencies, take it a step further. Organisations may have 12 or so of them and employees are assessed on 4 each year to see if they are actually working the way they should be, measuring inputs, in the way so many appraisals measure outputs.

Many organisations have competencies like managing communication, building effective working relationships and managing performance, and all of these link back to what we say, how we say it and how we get along. It means giving feedback on difficult behaviour so much easier, as there are written down facts to refer to.

Keep to the facts

So, like managing difficult situations and managing conflict, the solution to most of this lies with us. Keep to the facts, and keep emotions out of it. The ‘William Ury Going to the Balcony’ model will help, should the situation move into conflict, and the Centering and Three Level techniques may be of use too.

For most of us, it is how we communicate that is a root cause of difficult behaviour. A model that works for me is Transactional Analysis. I use it to understand why my behaviour is becoming difficult. When I feel angry, annoyed or extremely shouty, I ask myself “What happened there”? “What did I perceive them to do for me to react like this”?

Once I ask that question, I have gone in to the ‘Adult Ego state’, and I therefore look at the situation rationally. I then centre myself and therefore keep myself in check. You see, my ‘Critical Parent Ego’ state is massive, and I hear criticism even when it might not be there. Likewise, if someone responds to me in a way that I wasn’t expecting, then I think about what I said, what my tone was like and how I looked, and respond in a way that I hope brings the person back into the adult state. It’s a great model, and does wonders for working relationships. It requires us to respond in a rational, calm way and, therefore, behave as adults should.


Assertiveness techniques can help in these situations too. Too often difficult people are lacking in self-awareness and because they can be a little bit scary, no one has told them that that behaviour is unacceptable. So, an assertive statement such as

When you…

I think/feel…

So next time…

Might just be enough. So, for example if someone shouts at you in front of other people, you could, once they have calmed down, say, in a quiet place:

“When you shout at me in front of other people, I think you show me very little respect and I feel embarrassed. So, next time, if you are unhappy with an aspect of my work, can you tell me in private and in a calm manner?”

Assertiveness can be used in the moment too, just remember to be centred. Do it from an adult state, and remember - you do have the right to speak up for yourself.

We are all human and we should tolerate some of our little ways and not so nice traits. However, should we find that the difficulty is getting in the way of our ability to do jobs effectively, preventing us from getting on, or affecting our mental health, then it needs to be dealt with.

Hopefully these suggestions will help you, but there may be times when it needs to be escalated and I hope your organisations deals with it effectively.

Interested in finding out more about how to manage difficult people? Get in touch with us today.


Annette Quinn, Performance Management Facilitator

In my series of blogs I will be taking a look at performance management, in particular Time Management, and providing tips on how to develop your skills.

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