How to deal with difficult people in the workplace


People are the problem! This is invariably the answer I get when I ask what the number one problem in a workplace is. As Mavericks, we often don’t quite fit the mould, so this can be even more of a problem! It might be Managers who “can’t manage”. Leaders might be “out of touch with what is really going on”. A colleague could be overly competitive, obstructive or a downright nuisance. Whichever way, they are all "difficult people".

There is a saying that people stay at work because of their team mates but leave because of their boss. Quiet a sad indictment.

As people on a mission, we have to find a way to bring people along with us…but they aren’t always willing to co-operate, are they!?! People rarely are the actual problem. However we tend to lump people in with the problem.

If you really want to solve problems with difficult people at work - or indeed everywhere in your life - see them as human beings and choose to connect with them. See what you have in common rather than what divides you.

Bill’s story

I had a coaching session recently with Bill - a successful visionary member of the Maverick tribe in a leadership position - who was having all kinds of issues with his colleagues and team.

On the face of it, this was confusing as if you were to meet Bill, you would see that he is one of the most people focused nice guys around. He actually has really good people skills.

As we spoke, I started to ask what the situation was. Bill screwed up his face in a grimace. “Things are rocky with the team”. He continued, “They are good but difficult people. They just don’t do what I need them to do.” He pointed to a couple of team members, “They always deliver what I ask them to, but I really need them to be more proactive, to take on more and be prepared to do different things”.

I asked Bill a couple of pretty obvious questions that you are probably thinking right now. “What does it look like to be proactive? What behaviours would you see? More to the point, have you ever told your team?”.

In the cold, hard light of day, you might think this is obvious but it requires thought. Bill is crazy busy with tons of things to deliver. Under pressure, Bill reverts to type - a big picture thinker who doesn’t think in detail. The great thing about a coaching session is that it gave Bill time to step back and think. “I don’t think I have ever actually told them what I expect,” Bill continued. “We just don’t talk about how we work together. It is not the kind of conversation we have at this company.”

When in doubt, ask

I picked Bill up on that right away. “Have you ever asked them what their expectations are? Or, have you ever asked them how you can get the best out of them?” I believe that most people come to work to do a good job, and will tell you how best to work with them if you simply ask.

“No” Bill said, looking perplexed. “I just assumed that as being their leader it was my job to motivate them. I want everyone on the team to be happy and to get along.” Knowing Bill, I knew this was completely true from his perspective. Harmony is one of his biggest values.

Everyone really is different

“The thing is, Bill, that what makes people happy and productive really is different for everyone. One size doesn’t fit all.” Again, to the observer this might seem obvious, but who really has the time to really stop and think about this kind of thing at great length?

“One of your team members is itching to be stretched and needs to feel like she is achieving,” I explained. “Another needs consistent feedback when he is doing a good job, but you need to explain the specifics of what makes it a good job. Just thanking him won’t wash. He wants concrete details”. These kinds of little nuances are what make ALL the difference.

Bill’s face dropped and broadened into a big smile as the lightbulb went on. “In my busy-ness, I have been seeing them as the problem especially as we are all stressed and revert to type. What I am seeing is that I need to step into each of these relationships, ask each person about how we are working together,” he said pensively. “I need to be vulnerable enough to ask them how to get the best out of them. I also need to be honest about what I can give them and what I can’t…but we need to have a very open conversation”. Needless to say at this point Bill wasn’t the only one smiling...

How to deal with difficult people

Here are seven principles to help you overcome people problems and deal with the real human being behind the issue…and maybe even get the person to take the journey with you...

Separate problems from people

See them as a person first - when we are stressed and under pressure, we can easily see another person as a faceless problem. The moment we see the other person as the problem, we make them wrong and treat them as such. That is never going to get us to a solution as it won’t endear us to them or make them inclined to cooperate.

They are only human too

We all have our challenges and issues…and insecurities. Underneath it all, we all want to be loved and understood. When you understand that everyone you work with really does have problems that are as big to them as yours are to you, you can bring empathy and compassion into the situation. This is the first step in building bridges.

Seek first to understand then be understood

Most of us are stuck in our own little worlds and can only really see our own stuff…and assume that others dont get how bad our situation is. Ask questions and seek to really understand the other persons world first, and they will be far more inclined to try to understand yours.

Be generous and give the benefit of the doubt

What I am talking about here is being socially generous. That extends to assuming that everyone has a positive reason behind their behaviour or is seeking to do a good job, even if right now you don’t get it. They are not just being difficult people for the hell of it. Give them the benefit of the doubt and discover their perspective.

Choose connection rather than separation

This is the biggie especially in the work place. Choose to have a very human conversation about a situation and be vulnerable and sincere in your approach. Choose to build the connection rather than reinforce the separation. You might initially be met with some skepticism, but most people will respond positively when you see them as human rather than the source of a problem.

People do not think or feel the same way as you

This is a hard one to really see and understand beyond an intellectual understanding, but personality typing systems such as Myers Briggs, DISC, Insights and the Enneagram can give a real insight into what makes a person tick deep-down. I am not talking about just different experiences or values, but that people are wired quite differently from each other and if you can really understand this, you can really take a step into another person’s world.

Play to their communication style

This extends to knowing what works best for communicating with the other person. Bill being a big picture person hadn’t really grasped that his team member wanted to know specifically and in detail what she was doing well and needed to improve on. His "harmony" perspective had him thanking the team member and wondering why his thanks didn’t have the impact he wanted it to. If you can understand what is meaningful to how the other person communicates, you will remove a big barrier to connection.

Leave a comment below and tell us what one thing you are going to do to turn around a difficult people situation.