Working with people who are different from us has tremendous benefits. Diversity of thought, perspectives, and approaches is integral to successfully solving problems, innovating, and learning. However, the process can be filled with small challenges. Plenty of us have worked with someone whose style presents a challenge—like a coworker or manager who may frustrate or annoy us or create obstacles to a positive working environment.
One of the questions people ask is how best to handle an employee who is forceful, domineering, or overbearing, especially for a leader who is more introverted. Initially, you may be intimidated by the prospect of navigating such a relationship, but you can foster a healthy dynamic by focusing on three areas: mindset, mechanics, and mettle.
If you’ve participated in a workshop in the last few years, you may have run across events titled, “How to Handle Difficult People” or “How to Work With People Who Drive You Crazy.” These tutorials offering quick fixes are often approaching the problem with the wrong lens. Framing people as “difficult” or “annoying” sets up unnecessary barriers from the start.
Avoid labels. The first way to work effectively with an employee who can be perceived as “dominating,” “domineering,” or “difficult” is to avoid labeling them or judging them negatively. It’s natural for people to jump to conclusions when dealing with people who respond oddly or in an overbearing manner. We subconsciously put people into categories.
But holding ourselves back from these labels is an important tool in getting along and working together effectively. Labels assume a judgment. For instance, consider how the adjective dominating has a negative connotation—compared with referring to someone using words like influential or commanding, which have much more positive associations. Check yourself and your assumptions based on the labels you’re assigning, and avoid labeling altogether. Focus instead on the work to get done and the behaviors necessary to do it. Instead of thinking you’re working with someone overbearing, just think of working with Bob or Joe, for example.
Assume good intentions. Often, working with people who are really different can bring up assumptions about their motives. For example, working with someone who is forceful may cause you to conclude they’re just trying to get ahead or ride roughshod over your ideas. But our conclusions about people’s intentions are usually wrong, so in order to get along well together, it’s much more effective to start with positive assumptions. As humans, we have an instinct to reciprocate—to return in kind the treatment we receive. By assuming goodwill on the part of a more difficult employee, you will tend to drive a more positive approach on your own part, which in turn will tend to set up their positive response—a reinforcing cycle.
Focus on the work and align around goals. Another great way to work with a style that is different from your own is to focus on the work and common goals you share. You don’t have to be best friends with people at work, and you don’t need to agree with their approaches in order to respect them as people and work together effectively. Remind yourself and your employee of the overall purpose of your work, the goals of your project, and the accountabilities you share. Keeping the focus on the work rather than the person will contribute to constructive outcomes.
Of course, as a leader you’ll want to ensure you do all you can to create the conditions for all of your employees—including a team member who is especially determined—to be engaged and performing at their best. Here are a few ways to do so.
Tap their strengths. Consider the unique talents your employee brings to the table and tap into those. For example, perhaps they have a lot of energy to lead a project, or maybe they have thought deeply about a problem and can provide a comprehensive review of the challenge that paves the way for an innovative solution. Sometimes a team member with an especially big personality can mentor others, providing the opportunity for others to learn from the way they persuade or articulate their ideas. Reflect on the value the team member brings and be intentional about engaging them in ways that leverage their skills.
Delegate. Perhaps the employee has natural leadership capabilities. Find ways to delegate responsibility and empower them to spearhead a key initiative. Is there a high-priority venture you need to tackle? Maybe this team member can step in and contribute to organizing it, marshaling other team members, or managing it within the context of your overall leadership. Appreciating and empowering your team member can be good for getting the work done and for ensuring the team member’s energy is channeled in the right directions.
Give feedback. Of course, great leadership must always include giving people feedback and holding them accountable. We all want to matter and make a difference—it is our human instinct. So as a leader, be sure to keep lines of communication open with all of your employees and regularly provide information about how their efforts are working, and about their impact. Sometimes people have blind spots, so you can be especially helpful by asking people what their goals are and giving feedback about how their behavior is moving them toward—or away from—the impact they want to have. Accountability is also a positive element of leadership. Let people know what’s working well and less well in terms of their contribution and how they can be their most effective. Be sure you’re focused on performance, rather than just style. If someone is working effectively with the team and their tasks—even if they are more forceful or strong-willed—that’s cause for celebration. On the other hand, if their behaviors are getting in the way of working effectively, that’s something you’ll need to address in order to engage them in improving.
The mettle (or confidence)
Another key element of working well with a dominating employee is having your own confidence as a leader. Just as we label others, we can also fall into the trap of labeling ourselves, and introverts can get a bad rap. But anyone can be a great leader, no matter their personality style.
Reassure yourself. Remind yourself of your strengths and unique talents. There is no one best approach to anything, and whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you can bring your best and make a role your own. Focus less on how your style is identified and more on what you do well, where you want to improve, and how you can bring your best to your team and your organization.
Be open and transparent. Great leaders openly share information, ensure clarity among team members, and demonstrate transparency. These approaches tend to empower people because they have the information they need to take initiative and make good decisions. They also tend to foster trust among team members. Go out of your way to be open about the business, expose ideas you’re working on, and invite participation and mutual collaboration on projects and priorities.
Make yourself accessible. Another aspect of great leadership is being present for people—sharing the big picture, answering questions, and providing coaching and feedback. This is especially true when teams go through tough times (for instance, a global pandemic) or when they are working in a distributed way (like a work-from-home or hybrid format). Whether you’re working in person or virtually, check in with team members regularly, encourage people to come to you with issues, and ask questions about how you can help. This type of behavior demonstrates you care and will engage those who work with you.
As a leader, stretch your skills at the helm, especially in empathizing and understanding alternate perspectives. Invest in getting to know your team members and leveraging their best skills so that your company has a constructive and empowering culture.
Tracy Brower, PhD, is a sociologist focused on work-life, happiness, and fulfillment. She works for Steelcase. She is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.