9 Useful Strategies to Dealing with Difficult People at Work

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Ever encountered someone who frustrates you so much that you feel like you want to pull your hair, jump around the room and just scream out loud? You’re not alone.Over the years, I’ve encountered my fair share of difficult people. People who don’t turn their work in as promised, people who don’t show up for meetings, people who stick vehemently to their views and refuse to collaborate, people who push back on work that they’re responsible for – and more. Even as I run my own business, I work on collaboration projects and there are times where there are difficulties in getting a consensus because everyone is so firm in their views.

Years ago, I used to get bothered and worked up over such situations. I’d think, “Why are these people being so difficult?”, “These people are so irresponsible!”, “Just my luck to work with them” or “I don’t ever want to work with these people again!”.

After a while, I learned that these people are everywhere. No matter where you go, you can never hide from them. Sure, it might be possible to avoid the 1st one or two difficult people, but how about the 3rd, 5th, 10th person you encounter? Hiding isn’t a permanent solution. What’s more, in the context of work, it’s usually difficult to avoid or hide from someone, unless you quit from a job totally. Well – I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t seem feasible to quit every time someone has an opposing view or is being difficult.

So rather than turn to some drastic decisions each time, why not equip yourself with the skills to deal with them?

Here’s 9 tips which I’ve found to work in dealing with such people:

  1. Be calm.
    Losing your temper and flaring out at the other person typically isn’t the best way to get him/her to collaborate with you. Unless you know that anger will trigger the person into action and you are consciously using it as a strategy to move him/her, it is better to assume a calm persona.

Someone who is calm is seen as being in control, centered and more respectable. Would you prefer to work with someone who is predominantly calm or someone who is always on edge? When the person you are dealing with sees that you are calm despite whatever he/she is doing, you will start getting their attention.

  • Understand the person’s intentions.
    I’d like to believe that no one is difficult for the sake of being difficult. Even when it may seem that the person is just out to get you, there is always some underlying reason that is motivating them to act this way. Rarely is this motivation apparent. Try to identify the person’s trigger: What is making him/her act in this manner? What is stopping him/her from cooperating with you? How can you help to meet his/her needs and resolve the situation? 
  • Get some perspective from others.
    In all likelihood, your colleagues, managers and friends must have experienced similar situations in some way or another. They will be able to see things from a different angle and offer a different take on the situation. Seek them out, share your story and listen to what they have to say. You might very well find some golden advice in amidst of the conversation. 

Don’t stop now. We are just getting going and there are more useful workplace strategies ahead.

  • Let the person know where you are coming from.
    One thing that has worked for me is to let the person know my intentions behind what I am doing. Sometimes, they are being resistant because they think that you are just being difficult with them. Letting them in on the reason behind your actions and the full background of what is happening will enable them to empathize with your situation. This lets them get them on-board much easier.
  • Build a rapport.
    With all the computers, emails and messaging systems, work sometimes turn into a mechanical process. Re-instill the human touch by connecting with your colleagues on a personal level. Go out with them for lunches or dinners. Get to know them as people, and not colleagues. Learn more about their hobbies, their family, their lives. Foster strong connections. These will go a long way in your work.
  • Treat the person with respect.
    No one likes to be treated as if he/she is stupid/incapable/incompetent. If you are going to treat the person with disrespect, it’s not going to be surprising if he/she treats you the same way as well. As the golden rule says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
  • Focus on what can be actioned upon.
    Sometimes, you may be put into hot soup by your difficult colleagues, such as not receiving a piece of work they promised to give or being wrongly held responsible for something you didn’t do. Whatever it is, acknowledge that the situation has already occurred. Rather than harp on what you cannot change, focus on the actionable steps you can take to forward yourself in the situation.
  • Ignore.
    If you have already tried everything above and the person is still not being receptive, the best way might be to just ignore. After all, you have already done all that you can within your means. Get on your daily tasks and interface with the person only where needed. Of course, this isn’t feasible in cases where the person plays a critical role in your work – which leads us to our last tip.
  • Escalate to a higher authority for resolution.
    When all else fails, escalate to your manager. This is considered the trump card and shouldn’t be used unless you’ve completely exhausted your means. Sometimes, the only way to get someone moving is through the top-down approach, especially in bureaucratic organizations. Be careful not to exercise this option all the time as you wouldn’t want your manager to think that you are incapable of handling your own problems. I have done this several times in my previous job and I found it to be the most effective in moving people who just refuse to cooperate otherwise.

Try out these 9 tips for the difficult people you face at your workplace and see how they work out for you 🙂

Written by Celestine Chua. Celestine chose her passion over everything else when she left her high paying Fortune 100 career in 2008. Today, she enables thousands to achieve their goals and dreams through her popular personal development blog CelestineChua.com and her coaching. Photo Credit: Kevin Lawyer

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  • Scotswhahae

    The sad truth is that if any of the above works, you were not really dealing with a difficult person in the first place.

    Difficult people are those who single mindedly focus on their own wants and needs and do not give consideration to the wants or needs of others – that’s why we find them difficult, and why we innately feel disrespected or blamed, shamed or fearful when around them. To give them their proper titles they are Narcissists and at the extreme end of the spectrum Psychopaths. The tactics above will have no effect whatsoever on these types of people, and articles like this one have a tendency to create dysfunction and blame on the innocent others who are not Narcissists or Psychopaths by suggesting that there is a “magic way” or some highly developed “interpersonal skills” to get along with or handle these people…..psychiatrists and prison wardens are often polled on this subject and their experience tells them there is nothing that works – if there was, they would not re-offend.

    It is high time that HR and the boardroom faced the reality that charming bullies, Narcissistic and Psychopathic people in positions of power got to the top not because they deserved it or worked for it but because they terrorised everyone better and more worthy out of the way. HR has a duty of care responsibility to challenge up with dignity at work, with codes of conduct for meetings and project reviews and by challenging organisational design. A complex matrix structure organisation is the preferred Psychopath / Narcissist environment. A normal environment in contrast has an absence of blame and scapegoat culture, a tradition of long service, treating those at all levels with dignity and respect, and a focus on employee wellbeing – this includes long term rewards like a great pension programme rather than short term rewards like large bonuses. That means a return to Personnel which was founded in employee welfare rather than the corrupted HR which so often these days more accurately stands for “Henchman Resources” to protect those at the top regardless of how evil their deeds.

    Cutting pay at the top also helps as it forces Narcissists who want short term rewards to go elsewhere. Often the best performing managers and leaders are mild mannered types who do not dominate or charm but reason, logically strategise and lead. These are the kind of people we need more of at the top, not the high drama, ego centric divas we currently focus on today. If you have an investment in any company read the annual report, the more arrogant the leaders are the more you should be worried about your money…Lehmann Brothers, RBS and Enron were arrogant, short term focussed and had many narcissistic values embedded in the corporate culture, if you value your money, pressure the organisation to reduce benefits at the top and strengthen them at the bottom, that’s the key to long term incremental growth.

    Long term exposure to Narcissists and Psychopaths causes physical damage to your brain and results in zombie like dissociation which HR euphemise as “employee disengagement”. This is actually the early stage of post traumatic stress disorder which is well documented in the literature of the children exposed long term to Narcissistic and Psychopathic parents e.g. Pete Walker, the ACE study etc. In the UK there is health and safety legislation around a duty of care. Employing Narcissists and Psychopaths causes damage to others so if your employer exposes you to this they are guilty of negligence. MRI imaging can now show the good or evil behind the mask e.g. Neurologist Jim Fallon’s work so there is now no excuse for employers not to brain scan as part of the recruitment process for senior people, and to stop recruiting psychopaths into leadership roles which they are incapable of doing due to their total lack of empathy.

    If you are dealing with a Psychopath or Narcissist at work, blag it that you are unaffected, constantly switch responses so they can’t control you e.g. ask odd unrelated questions or give unexpected answers to keep them guessing, and if hooked get out or get prepared to fight a war for your very survival.