Managing Difficult People

Imagine the following office scenario. Bill, the engineering manager, and Mary, the accounting manager, are discussing an interdepartmental meeting where nothing was accomplished because of two other managers who tried to derail the meeting with negative actions and comments.

Sam, the operations manager, walked out when no one agreed with his “it won’t work” attitude. Jonathan, the vice president of marketing, tried to delay the project by not making a decision on the marketing collateral and suddenly disapproving of a well-positioned supplier.

“It was good you decided to end the meeting and reschedule it for tomorrow,” Mary said to Bill. “I want to hear your solutions on how to manage these two. The project needs to stay on timeline and in budget.”

On the way back to his office, Bill recalled a communications workshop he attended last year. It helped improve the accounting team’s cohesiveness and understanding of different people’s communication style.

The facilitator used DISC assessment, which focuses on behavior and how a person communicates. DISC is a group of psychological inventories developed by psychologist John G. Geier and is based on the work of William M. Marston. From the assessment report participants learned how to recognize four different communication styles and how to effectively communicate with types different from their own.

Communication is critical for leaders and employees working on global and diverse teams. When employees understand their communication style, they can modify and adjust to improve their situational effectiveness.

DISC is about how a person behaves and prefers to give and receive information. It does not offer information on how intelligent people are, their background or experience. There are no good or bad styles, and people can be a blend of more than one.

The DISC Assessment is known for these communication and behavior types: D (Dominance), I (Influence), S (Steadiness) and C (Compliance):

• D: How a person responds to problems and challenges. This style is a bottom-line organizer, forward-looking, challenge-oriented, initiates projects and is innovative.
• I: How a person influences people and contacts. This style is optimistic, enthusiastic, creative at problem solving, team oriented and can negotiate conflict.
• S: How a person responds to pace and consistency. This style is dependable, team oriented, patient, empathic, logical, loyal and will support a leader and a cause.
• C: How a person responds to procedures and compliance. This style maintains high standards, is conscientious, clarifies information and tests out directives, asks the right questions and focuses on task completion.

The dynamic mixture of the four styles can enhance a team’s problem-solving ability, but there are situations when certain styles are more effective than others. For example, Mary is an S. She likes detail and thrives in an environment where punctuality is important and being correct is valued. Bill is a D. He’s bottom-line focused, likes information in bullet points and prefers short meetings. Bill and Mary may have different communication styles, but they can both learn how to use those strengths to make the interdepartmental project team successful.

But first Bill has Sam and Jonathan to deal with. After reviewing his information from the DISC workshop and talking with the vice president of talent management, Bill is more prepared. He realized that DISC types can overuse their strengths. For example, the Dominant can become impatient; the Influencer can become excited and use sarcasm; the Steadiness person can resist change; and the Compliant can be overly concerned with guarantees and overanalyze the data. These behaviors are recognizable and manageable.

Bill asks the vice president of talent management for additional insight as he formulates his plan of attack, and she recommends a book that might help. Coping with Difficult People, by Robert M. Bramson, describes many different types and groups them together: hostile-aggressive, the complainer, silent and unresponsive, negativist and the indecisive stallers.

The number of difficult employees in most workplaces is small, but their impact is large: lost productivity, rework and decreased morale are some of the negative impacts. Difficult people affect most of the people with whom they come in contact; they can frustrate and demoralize, cause companies to lose customers and even promote absenteeism. Difficult people may be hard to understand, and they do not respect the normal boundaries of organizations and teamwork. For instance, if Jonathan did not like the supplier, why not say something when the project began rather than waiting until a critical point in the project timeline?

After reviewing the situation, Bill has a clearer perspective on these two difficult types and decides on a plan to mitigate their impact.

First he approaches Sam, who became Mr. Negative during the meeting, and said, “We tried that two years ago and it did not work. What makes you think it will work now?” but did not offer an alternate idea or solution. Bill deliberately let Sam leave the meeting without comment. Now he was ready to follow up to address his comments. Sam does have valuable knowledge about the project and can help define and clarify the challenges, but he needs to be re-engaged. Bill decided to use one of Bramson’s suggestions around “deflating the Negativist’s sails” by asking Sam what the worst-case scenario would be if the plan or project was implemented.

For Jonathan, head of marketing, Bill changes tactics. Although Jonathan is usually a team player, this time he could not commit or make a decision and was trying to control the situation with delaying tactics — claims about alternatives and complaints about the supplier. Bill consults another book, Coping with Toxic Managers, Subordinates … and Other Difficult People by Roy H. Lubit. Lubit suggests the best way to deal with Jonathan’s type is to put deadlines in place — essentially, put a stake in the ground, and be clear that the project needs to move ahead with or without Jonathan’s input.

Bill is a leader in his organization, and he is the lead for this project. His team sees how he responds in these difficult situations. They see how he manages non-verbal communication and how he handles and defuses high-tension situations. Therefore, he is careful to use diplomacy and tact and to stress the success of the project and everyone’s hard work.

On the way to the next day’s project team meeting, Bill and Mary both feel they have good action steps to take if things get difficult. Jonathan will be told that they are using the same supplier and to move ahead. Sam has been re-engaged to find a solution rather than sitting and emoting negativism.

There are many difficult people in everyone’s life, and recognizing them and acknowledging them as difficult is most of the battle. The rest of the fight requires patience and sound strategies to clarify the issues and identify solutions.

How to Coach a Difficult Person: A Script

If employees tend to delay or cannot make a decision in a one-on-one meeting, acknowledge their expertise or experience. Ask for their perspective and how they can help the team keep a meeting objective and factual. Here are some questions to ask:

• Please clarify your perspective on the situation.
• What critical information does the project team need to know to rethink its decision?
• Can you help the team find a solution? Can the project team count on you and your knowledge to help complete the project?

This approach can mitigate the impact of delayers, procrastinators and negativists until a project is over and get them re-engaged rather than allow them to sit in the corner being difficult.

Tips for Handling Problem Personalities

There’s one in almost every office: Betty the Big Mouth likes to blow off steam and push her agenda; Michael the Micromanager always checks and double checks everyone’s work; Denise the Drill Sergeant wants everything done her way, but she tends to forget what she said on Monday morning by Monday afternoon, which causes rework.

To handle these different employee types:
• Recognize the situation and clarify it in writing if need be. In Denise’s case this is particularly helpful to avoid negative impacts spreading to innocent parties.
• Define the action steps that need to be taken to move the project forward.
• If meeting with a person one on one, be prepared:
• Use assertive and objective language and use “I” statements.
• Be prepared to disagree assertively or to state an opinion.
• Use appropriate body language for the individual.
• When a situation arises during a meeting, make eye contact with the person and be non-emotional; take the best action to keep the meeting intact or to allow the team to regroup.
• Use assertive language so the person does not talk over the leader.
• Remind the person he or she is in a project meeting.
• Do not fade into the scenery, but do not compete with the person.
• Avoid discussing feelings.

How Not to Deal With a Difficult Person

If one employee causes contention amidst the ranks, there are a few ways leaders should not handle the situation:

• Don’t be louder and more emotional than he or she is.
• Don’t try to beat the person at his or her game.
• Don’t think you can outwit the difficult person by being difficult.
• Don’t intensify the situation.
These tactics have a tendency to make a tough situation tougher, and can make conflict resolution more difficult on the back end.

Valerie Pelan is president of Integrated Focus, a management and leadership consultancy. She can be reached at

Don’t let employees reach their boiling point. Use these tips to defuse situations before they get out of hand