“Oh no, not him!” Four Leadership Principles for Working with Difficult People

If you’re like most of us, there’s someone in our workplace who—let’s face it—gets on your nerves and drives you crazy. Whether it’s an employee who knows it all, a client whose poor planning skills make everything a crisis, a senior executive with a huge ego, or a board member who can’t stay on track, the end result is the same: Stress. You worry about what disruptive thing they’ll do or say next, and about your ability to control your own responses—not to mention what others might do. It’s almost like middle school for adults.

“Oh no, not him!” Four Leadership Principles for Working with Difficult People

It’s difficult to know how to handle these people/situations. You may find yourself reduced to dealing with their behavior one crisis at a time, walking on eggshells in between. It’s exhausting and it detracts from your performance—and your team’s.

But there are steps you can take that are more effective than wishing they would resign or get transferred to – Mars. Here are some proactive measures that may help:

Think it through.

Before you start dealing with the problem, make sure you really understand it. Is it possible you’re still responding to a bad reputation that the person has long outgrown? Is there conflict arising from differences in personality type? Is there something in the person’s background that might be relevant? Try to look objectively from all perspectives before you take action; an outside opinion might be helpful. Also look for patterns in the behavior and the circumstances surrounding it. The more you understand what’s happening, the better you can handle it.

Practice your words.

Resolve not to let difficult people rattle your composure. To that end, walk yourself through some likely scenarios and how you can carry out your side. If you are a leader and it’s an employee who is always pushing a personal agenda, that response might mean saying “Thank you for sharing that, do you have any other concerns.” If it’s a client or customer who gives your people a hard time, you might say something like “I greatly value your business and I want to work with you to solve any problems, I also want to make sure in every situation that not only my customers but also my staff members are treated with respect.”

Keep control of the tone.

Have you ever heard that 10% of conflicts are due to difference in opinion and 90% are due to wrong tone of voice? A big part of your effectiveness in defusing the situation lies not with what you say but how you say it. This is an area where the best solution will vary depending on the situation. If the difficult person ranks above you or is a client, you’re likely required to be somewhat accommodating. If they’re a member of your team, you have to think about equity and the effect on other team members. If it’s someone who’s often angry, concentrate on staying calm in response. Whether you’re more likely to encounter the person in public or in private is another factor to consider.

Communicate your expectations clearly and directly.

Backdoor passive-aggressive responses may be tempting in the moment, but they simply don’t work. If anything, they may escalate the situation. Similarly, a gentle hint is likely to be ignored. If you are in a position of leadership, clearly and firmly state your expectations—along with a timeline for compliance and defined consequences for those who fall short. If at all possible, make this communication at a time when things are calm.

Difficult people are an unfortunate fact of life—within the workplace and elsewhere. When you learn to maintain control of your responses and the situation, you’re going a long way toward solving the problem. You’ve also set a good example for your colleagues—and, in time, your reasonable behavior may even have a positive influence on the difficult ones.

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