Posted on July 21 in Management

“Difficult People” Management Isn’t Necessarily Difficult

Digging to the bottom of the issue may turn up a great employee

One of the cornerstone classes in business management education is the “Dealing With Difficult People” class. A quick Google search of the phrase above served up almost SEVEN MILLION results in less than a second. I agree it’s important to know how to interact with these “types” to protect yourself emotionally and on the job.

However, throughout my career I’ve encountered difficult people and always ask myself WHY they’re difficult. I doubt they’re difficult to everyone in every situation. They must have some value or they wouldn’t be employed. So before you “deal” with that difficult person, ask yourself why and how they’re difficult and if there’s something you can do to bring them over from the dark side.

Some difficult people I’ve encountered at work:

  • The “Grenade”: Angry and rigid, this person wants things done his/her way and blows up if you deviate from that plan.
  • The Chameleon: This person takes on the persona of whomever is in the room, may make pronouncements of agreement with you, then denies every saying any such thing later, especially if higher-ups show doubt.
  • The Bully: At work, the Bully is gifted at the backhanded compliment or ensuring their nasty comments, insults or threats to your job are made when others aren’t around. If this is the case and you’re sure this is a habit, write everything down including the date and location, because you’ll likely have to go to Human Resources to effect change.
  • The Yesses and the Nos: Yesses tend to stay quiet in meetings, or be vague. Nos don’t have that problem; they find every reason for something not to work.
  • The Raincloud: This person never seems happy and the world is perpetually coming to an end. They can cast a pall over a whole department.
  • The Square Peg in the Round Hole: this person pushes ideas that are outside of their lane or completely off the highway. Often very energetic, they can feel like a whirlwind of wasted time, suggesting things that are really hard to do, or that are not where leadership sees the business going.

Let’s talk about “being difficult” in the first place, because if you can identify the root of WHY these people are the way they are, you may be able to make some changes and productively move forward. They may not even be difficult, just different. Remember, diversity on your team and in your company is an asset!

I have always been interested in what makes people the way they are or act the way they do. As a child, Margaret Mead and anthropology fascinated me, and I still love to know what makes people tick. So when I’ve come to new jobs and people “help” by telling me to watch out for this or that person, I rarely move away, but toward.

Once I worked with a “Grenade,” a man universally avoided at our office. Wow! He was the company’s facilities manager, and anything could light the fuse, making him friendless and an object of derision. People avoided him and advised me to do so, too. Instead, I got to know him so I could judge for myself.

He was my dad’s age, and both were career military, so I interacted with him as I did with my father—carefully and with respect. As I dug deeper, I learned his wife had had a debilitating stroke early in life that meant round-the-clock care, tremendous stress, and very different marriage than any of us would envision.

His rigidity and controlling manner were an effort to control everything he could, because he had no control over that which mattered most to him—his wife and marriage. Patience led to empathy; empathy led to a deep friendship.

A former boss was both The Chameleon and The Bully. He was a lovely, warm, interesting person when he was with higher-ups but dreadful with people at his level or below. In fact, he’d driven several employees to quit due to nasty comments, contradictory instructions, a constant focus on “managing up.” The hitch was, he was a brilliant marketing strategist, just crummy with people.

My guess (and others’) was the comments and faultfinding had nothing to do with us, but with his insecurity. So HIS boss made a very wise move: she didn’t fire him, she changed his job. His marketing acumen still benefited the company, but the people went to someone who was facile at creating an atmosphere of teamwork and appreciation.

Yesses and Nos are, of course, two sides of a coin—they either agree to everything, or say it can’t be done or is too hard. Often, they’ve been shut down in the past or made to feel their input doesn’t count. That many companies’ management is often in constant flux may have made them decide that nothing will ever change, so why speak up?

I’ve found these personalities require some steady, delicate digging, preferably in private. Water cooler or hallway conversations are a better place to gauge their feelings than in a roomful of people, and offer a safer opportunity to speak up. Some time and attention can bring a Yes or No person back on board, and put their knowledge and perspective to good use.

If you have a Raincloud at work, things may be going on away from work that you don’t know. One raincloud coworker was actually managing several family crises at once—no wonder she just tried to get through the day. I finally wormed it out of her, we were able to set boundaries between work and home, and we went to lunch about once a week so she could blow off steam away from the office.

The last in my list, the Square Peg, is the hardest to describe and manage, because they can either be amazing, or amazingly awful. You first have to ask, “is this person clueless and in the wrong job?” If that’s the case and they aren’t qualified for the position they’re in, don’t give up hope! Passion and curiosity count for a lot. Maybe there’s another role or project for which they’d be perfect, like the Bully situation above. Some people like non-linear career growth—I’m one of those people, in fact.

Or this person may be more entrepreneurial than you’re used to. Consider setting aside some time after a meeting to hear out their “crazy” idea. Is your culture one in which they can make the case for doing something new or different, as long as their assigned work gets done? This is where harnessing the square peg and letting them be square works. They might uncover a new market opportunity or cost-saving approach, satisfying their entrepreneurialism in the process. Win-win. I said it before: I’m a square peg. Read some of my case studies to see what can happen when you harness your square peg!

Face it—we spend a lot of time at work, and a positive, productive environment is critical to being happy and fulfilled on the job. If one wheel is squeaking a lot more than others, don’t change the wheel without at least trying to get to root of the issue. You may be surprised how beneficial it is to have a “difficult” person on your staff once they don’t feel the need to be difficult any more.

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