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A Survival Guide For Managing Difficult People

They’re sarcastic, cynical, and negative, but you don’t want to fire them. Hope and help for managing people who drive you nuts.

A Survival Guide For Managing Difficult People
[Photo: Flickr user Francisco Barberis]

Ideally, when you’re leading or working with a team, you have a group of people who work in good faith to get the job done well–and get along while doing so. Then, there are those folks who are just miserable. Perhaps they’re cynical or sarcastic. They may be negative, unreliable, or gossipy. Sometimes, they’re even worse–engaging in backstabbing or trying to undermine your authority.

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Of course, you’re not going to get along with everyone at the office, but if you’re a leader, you’re in a position to take action to mitigate the damage these dismal souls can do, says Elizabeth Holloway, PhD, professor at Antioch University’s PhD Program in Leadership & Change and coauthor of Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power. As you begin to use your authority to deal with your challenging team members, there are some helpful steps you can take.

Figure Out Why They Are Difficult

Some people are unpleasant and some damage the organization, says Michael J. Beck, founder of Michael Beck International, a Portland, Oregon-based performance consulting and employee engagement firm. Try to get to the bottom of why your employee is acting out. Is he or she dissatisfied with the work or the company? Is there an issue going on at home? Beck says asking good questions and observing the employee in action can give you some insight into whether you’re dealing with a difficult personality or another issue that can be fixed.

Learn The Types

Personality tests like the DiSC profile can be useful in gaining insight into your workers, their preferences, and how they like to communicate, says Gerald Bricker, principal of Aadvise Consulting, a business coaching firm in Northville, Michigan. Such insight can be difficult for people to articulate, and these tests can give you a bit of insight that might otherwise be hard to obtain, he says. There is also a body of research and writing about how to manage different personality types, he adds.

If there’s a clear understanding of that person, what their makeup is, and how best to communicate with them, that will go a long way toward helping to overcome those challenges, he says.

Acknowledge Your Differences

Sometimes, simply calling out the fact that you and your colleague have different approaches can be enough to defuse the tension, Beck says. Say something like, “Boy, we really have different styles, but let’s see how we can work through this.” That way, you’re not delivering negative criticism, but you’re recognizing the fact that there’s an issue, he says.

Hear Them Out

Bricker says that, many times, people who seem to have personality issues are people who feel like they’re not being heard or are unhappy with their work. They feel like they’re not being heard or respected. In such a case, Bricker suggests having a private conversation and just listening.

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“Once they’ve had a chance to air out their thoughts and their feelings, that really contributes greatly toward solving the problem,” he says. You can gain insight about what the problem really is and take steps toward solving it.

Be Open To Criticism

Once you have that sit-down, Bricker says you might have to hear some things that aren’t very pleasant. Sometimes, employees have legitimate complaints about the workplace, company culture, or supervisors. (That might be you.) Then, you’ve got to figure out a way to deal with it, he says.

“Sometimes, that might mean explaining in very clear, rational terms why things are the way they are. It may mean looking into what they have to say and understanding that something was overlooked,” he says.

Deliver Constructive Negative Feedback

Holloway says that managers need to be trained in giving negative feedback effectively. Simply calling out someone for bad behavior often doesn’t work. Instead, relate it to the bottom line. For example, point out that when the employee responds in a certain way, it shuts down conversation and makes meetings less effective.

Realize That No One Is Indispensable

It might feel like that difficult employee is impossible to fire because he or she is so good at the job. But Toxic Workplace coauthor Mitchell Kusy, PhD, also a professor at the Antioch leadership program, says that you have to look at the overall cost to your organization. In research for the book, he and Holloway found that 12 percent of individuals leave their organization because of toxic personalities. If your difficult employee is driving out other employees, it might be time to say goodbye, even if it’s a challenge in the short term.

Related: 8 Steps To Dealing With A Toxic Coworker

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and web sites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.

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