Taking a lead in handling difficult situations and difficult people can be the hardest part of any management role. In this article, the authors outline ways in which to handle such people and situations to ensure a better outcome for all.
What makes your workplace either heaven or hell? It’s the mix of personalities that makes a team effective and fun to work in – and work in a genuinely interesting place to be day in and day out. But these differences also provide the greatest source of challenges for a manager: the opportunities for misunderstanding, confrontation and relationship breakdowns. They also carry the potential for the situation that every leader dreads and which might culminate in a “spiky” and uncomfortable working environment, grinding everyone down. Clashes between personalities are not just a problem for those involved, but often cause ripples of stress and anxiety to permeate across team, or even a whole department.
Taking a lead in handling difficult situations and difficult people can be the hardest part of any management role. How can colleagues, peers and even senior management tackle those personal, awkward situations where there doesn’t seem to be a rule book – situations that can deteriorate into embarrassing scenes for all to witness and hear about? They can become a major distraction where you end up only focused on the stars and the awkward squad, when the attention should actually be equally on the majority of team members; those who simply get on with their work.
We attempt in this article to outline ways in which to handle not only such difficult and challenging people and situations, but a process and approach to ensure that dealing with such people results in more effective organisational and personal learning resulting in a better outcome for all.
A Process to Deal with Difficult People
Managers need to recognise that there is a multiplicity of personality behaviours that colleagues can exhibit. The reality is that none of us fit into one type of “difficult person” stereotype: simply put, we are a complex and varied mix of experiences, needs, desires and wants that conflicts and competes. As we may all come from different backgrounds, schooling and career experiences and, different basic attitudes to life, each of these aspects serve to shape our expectations of others and ways of working and tolerance of each. This is often demonstrated in different approaches and attitudes taken in an organised environment such as the workplace. Hence in recognising this, is there a way in which to systematically deal with difficult individuals yet being fair and consistent? The following five step process grounded in years of people-management experience and observations, attempts seeks to offer some degree of description rather than prescription to providing such a route.
Stage 1: Appreciate that one person has many facets
Fundamental to handling “difficult” personalities is the acceptance that each individual has many different and at times conflicting characteristics: these aspects are, after all, what make us unique. There are many management and self-help books that attempt to address and discuss this variety of personality and character types. The most popular stereotypes in this vein have been made popular by Brinkman and Kirschner (1994), which include: the Tank (confrontational, angry, pushy, self-centred individuals); the Sniper (those that use sarcasm and strategically-timed comments and behaviours to antagonise at a distance); the Grenade (sensitive but angered souls who are liable to explode into unfocused rants); the Know-it-all (fellow workers who exhibit a low tolerance of contradiction); the Yes person (those who are always saying “yes” to everything without thinking through the implications to them and others – and then becomes resentful). These and additional examples seek to provide an alternative view and light relief on an often stressful topic. But these definitions aren’t always helpful as the very stereotypes that are (deliberately) created may tend to perpetuate the idea that certain kinds of people are always a problem – and perhaps should even be left to their own devices.
Stage 2: Content clarification
On a practical level, it’s useful to focus on establishing facts foremost and collating factual notes on the specifics of a difficult situation. By going about this in a systematic and methodical way will avoid points of future disagreement. When either dealing directly with or helping to support others in such situations, understanding and obtaining the facts / evidence is important – hence content in the initial phases is key. But in doing so, it is usually the case that recounting a difficult situation which may have left you or others feeling confused, aggrieved or upset may continue to provoke feelings of anxiety or uncertainty – which may lead to a stalemate and therefore hinder any progress that leads to some sort of resolution. In this instance, it is important that content is used as a mechanism to make and take note of what happened and not necessarily use it as a source to describe how it made you or others feel; to do so will simply bog you down in detail. Approaching the situation first from the point of view of gathering and confirming content should then invoke a rational and so-called left-brain approach, disassociating occurrence with emotion.
Building up a case file or case history through a series of vignettes of incidents and examples of what happened to others (or indeed to you personally) is a useful instrument and approach to take. The content needs to be accurate as a basis for future discussions as this means that when feedback is required, there is a depth of material and examples that are reliable and tangible to talk through in a grounded and constructive way, rather than a conversation dominated by emotional responses and subjective memories that may have attracted “colourful” or even damaging interpretations over the course of time. These sources also act as a useful reflection of perhaps what not to do, should a similar circumstance occur in the future.
Stage 3: Frame the context
After establishing the facts of the situation, its important to then understand the behaviours, environment, attitudes, intonations and feelings involved in the situation that make it unique – i.e. the context. Managers should consider that whilst there might be a pattern of behaviour when dealing with difficult people and situations, it is dangerous to assume an immediate solution always exists – this is the “I’ve seen it all before” syndrome in action. Even if you’re right in your assessment and view of a how a situation has evolved and is developing (and hence might perceive how the other parties involved are “wrong”), whether the situation involves you personally or you’re observing / resolving a problem among colleagues, try to avoid seeing things directly in terms of “common sense” or “obvious”. To do so would be to simply default to your natural, subjective view of the world. Doing so eliminates the possibility that there might be alternative perspective on the situation – negating the opportunity to overcome your own standards and experiences and benefit from the viewpoint of others.
Framing allows you to overcome this mental block and is more subtle than empathy, as it requires you to adopt a different point of view (remaining as yourself) without changing the facts. In doing so, forcing you to re-think and re-view what you are seeing and avoiding confirmation bias.
Stage 4: Engage and Identify outcomes
Following the above, and alongside it, managers need to remember that what matters most is staying calm and professional, no matter how emotionally-charged the situation might be. Engaging with the situation and trying to understand the broad context of what it is about, and hence what potential outcomes might be possible is essential – without getting too absorbed in the detail. Here it is essential to consider that any outcome you might focus upon should not be a vehicle for making a judgment about who is right or wrong; or a winner or a loser in a given situation. This will fuel any (negative) behaviour of the person who is exhibiting difficult behaviour – and will not allow for the exploration of viable and workable alternatives to rectify the situation. This tends to be evident more in private sector firms than in public sector organisations where there is more of a propensity for confrontation between people based upon a culture of competition rather than a culture of collaboration. Identifying outcomes then, serves as a mechanism to make sense of framing the context.
Stage 5: Handle the conversation
Whilst the previous steps identified methods, this final step focusses on the overall process in dealing with an often complex and divergent situation. Ultimately as a manager and leader, it will fall to the individual to maintain and provide an environment for an open and discursive dialogue between all parties. This can be challenging and difficult to maintain when emotions and irrational behaviour is evident. Using an informal process of facilitated discussion or mediation to make sure different views are acknowledged in a positive and supportive environment, can help greatly and will allow everyone to feel listened to and respected. This is more likely to result in a compromise and constructive way forward. The alternative of half-solutions and one-sided conversations which do not allow for a plurality of views, perspectives and discussion are only likely to worsen problems and lead to a breakdown in the future.
Framework to Frame an Engagement Approach
Putting all of the above steps into perspective provides the basis for the development of a framework for dealing with and managing difficult personalities.
Whilst the previous steps define the process, it is also important to understand the manner and mindset by which you can view and deal with such situations. This defines how we might become increasingly resilient in the face of challenging situations that demand a mix of both rational as well as emotional thought and behaviour. The following elements attempt to bring these parts together into a reference framework that sits alongside the process for managing difficult situations in the previous sections.
If you are feeling stuck and that the situation is not improving it may also be useful to seek support in order to cope with such situations and individuals. In this instance being able to reach out and beyond into a support network of peers or even speaking to a non-judgmental professional may help to explore and help you to understand how to deal with bringing closure to the challenging situation. For example, you may wish to contemplate and explore with a mentor, coach or counsellor the underlying basis of such conflicts between personalities, in terms of the conditions that might have been a catalyst for the difficult situation; whether there was a loss of understanding, miscommunication or respect; or whether competition and self-interest was a stronger factor than collaboration and mutual benefit; if there was any behaviour that was promoting or exacerbating an adversarial attitude over a harmonising one; and if indeed, there were unintentional or unintended actions that caused any party harm or hurt. By addressing and exploring these questions, it will allow you to reframe the situation as a “point in time” occurrence rather than an ongoing dynamic. This reflection is useful in feeding back into the steps for dealing with difficult people.
Following on from above, it is clear that reflecting on how you may develop your capability and capacity to deal with such issues in the future should be a positive and rewarding final step. Cognitive as well as personality-based frameworks such as Myers and Briggs Foundation (MBTI®) may assist in determining your future approach to such situations. For example it may be useful to reflect upon how you mediated and dealt with others (Are you talkative or reflective, i.e. more extrovert than introvert?); the manner by which you took in and heard information (did you look for connections between ideas or focus on facts, i.e. more intuitive than sensing?); the way in which you made decisions (did you apply reason based upon facts or upon your feelings, i.e. thinking over feeling?); and how you generally see the world (were you seeking to achieve a resolution at all costs or were you open to a range of options, i.e. judging or perceiving?).
All of these elements are brought together in Figure 1.
This shows and highlights the interdependencies across all of these features. Essentially this explains and shows that an ongoing dynamic / conversation in order to improve understanding of the content through context, engagement and reflection/awareness provide a path to dealing with difficult people and situations.
People are complex and deep. There’s no doubt that managing personal clashes can be an uncomfortable, which makes it even more important that we view such difficult circumstances as opportunities for learning and personal development, rather than taxing and problematic management responsibilities that should be avoided until the final moment. Reflecting on what worked and what didn’t (in terms of recognising and understanding your own emotions and perspectives and that of others) is an important leadership and management skill. Additionally understanding what you could do differently next time – even if it’s only a lesson about being more tolerant of other personalities (and reigning-in your own, and not making assumptions about who’s being difficult – will aid you in your overall growth as a leader.
Ultimately, by understanding the dynamic interplay between the given elements of the presented framework will give you the ability to learn from, recover and be more adept with handling such situations with increased capability and resilience in the future. By recognising that there is a process as well as mindset to dealing with difficult and challenging people and situations, you should even be able to develop and enhance your skills as well as the potential ability to help others deal with such challenging situations – see it as personal growth and development. In doing so, you will have gained additional skills and insights needed to become an even greater impactful manager.
About the Authors
Zahir Irani is Professor of Management and Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Bradford. Prior to this role, he was Dean of College for Business, Arts and Social Sciences at Brunel University London and worked in the Cabinet Office as Senior Policy Advisor during the coalition Government. He has been Head of the Brunel Business School where under his leadership it won Business School of the Year in 2013.
Amir M. Sharif is Professor of Operations Management and the Founding Director of the Operations and Supply Chain Systems (OASIS) research group within Brunel Business School, Brunel University London where he has also held a number of leadership roles including Head of School, Assistant Head, Director of MBA Programmes and Director of Teaching and Learning. Prior to Brunel, he worked for multinational corporations such as JPMorgan, UBS
- Brinkman R and Kirschner R. 1994. Dealing with People you can’t stand, 3rd revised edition, ISBN-13: 978-0071785723, USA.
- Irani Z. 2016. Important tips for managing those difficult personalities in your team, Civil Service World, 27th January, Dods Parliamentary Communications Ltd, London, UK.