Managing Difficult Personalities

Businesspeople arguing in meeting

By Zahir Irani and Amir Sharif

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.

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.

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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
and KPMG.



  • 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.

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