5 Top Tips How to Deal with Difficult People at Work

Written by Josephine Palermo, Director of Geared for Growth, and co-Creator Higher Spaces

We never expect people to act in ways that are disturbing or uncomfortable to us. When someone acts in this way we often ask ourselves “why did they do that!!??” Understanding what lies behind a behaviour is the key to knowing how to address and react to it. Here’s how to deal with difficult people at work.

Know What’s Motivating the Behaviour

The majority of the people on this planet are motivated by 3 things, and it’s as easy as A, B, and C!

  • A is for Autonomy. Most people want to do it their way, or at least want to feel like they have contributed to how things are done. They can sometimes react adversely or feel disempowered if forced to follow someone else’s rules.
  • B is for Belonging. People want to feel like they a part of something bigger than themselves, and that they belong. What we might perceive as “bad” behaviour can sometimes stem from a feeling of isolation or rejection.
  • C is for Competency. People love to feel a sense of mastery and love to achieve and learn new things. However, they can also react in a defensive way if their competency is questioned.

Adapt Your Communication

Your personality will impact the type of communication you prefer and pay attention to. If you are a detailed conscious person you might need all the facts before feeling like you’ve really heard or understand someone. If you are a visionary person you will think in terms of concepts and will be bored or even not process information at all if bombarded with too many details.

Communication conflicts will occur if you don’t adapt your communication towards the other person’s preferences rather than your own. How do you identify personality differences? Well there are many tests and assessments that are designed to do just that. And lots of professional help to do it right. But if you want to get a taste for how a better understanding of personality differences can help, use these guidelines. People will usually fall into one of five buckets: 

  1. Openness to experience: inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious;
  2. Conscientiousness: efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless;
  3. Extraversion: outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved;
  4. Agreeableness: friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached;
  5. Neuroticism: sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident.

A cool way to remember the different personality dimensions is to use the acronym OCEAN. For more detail on the scientific research and origins of the Five Factor Personality Model see https://positivepsychology.com/big-five-personality-theory/. People in different buckets need different forms of communication. Learning about where they sit and what their preferences are can be truly enlightening. To find out more about your own preferences and personality type go to: https://www.16personalities.com/

Know Yourself

You can’t control someone else’s thoughts or behaviours, but you can control the way you react to them. Knowing yourself well, and especially what triggers your emotional responses, is a good start to dealing more effectively with difficult people. For example you may be faced with someone, perhaps your boss, who is confident, demanding and has a high need for control.  They send you an email IN CAPS asking you to take care of something urgently, and you start to break out in a sweat. Why? It could be that the demanding behaviour they are demonstrating triggers a learnt behaviour in yourself (usually learnt in your past experiences) that sets off all your “flight” triggers, and so you react by heightened stress and anxiety, which often is very unproductive in the face of pressure and high job demand.

Between a trigger and an emotional response, there is a thought. The way we interpret stimuli or triggers will have a significant impact on the nature and degree of our emotional responses. If you understand your trigger, you can be on the alert for these situations, When they arise you can acknowledge the biological response and feelings you are experiencing, but then pause before labelling them or reacting. This provides rational thinking space to adopt some strategies to quieten down your own emotional response or reframe it through observation and self talk. In doing so you can more effectively respond or concentrate on accomplishing the task at hand. Knowing yourself better helps you to regulate your emotional responses, putting you in a better position to deal with that “difficult” behaviour.

Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries for yourself often comes down to what you say yes and no to. We all struggle with perceptions of risk and security which drives our behaviour in terms of what we will say yes to (when we shouldn’t) and what we want to control (when someone else could easily do it…and maybe better!).

Setting boundaries isn’t about shirking responsibility or accountability. It’s about letting go of the need to tightly control outcomes all by yourself and acknowledging that others can help. The place to start is to be clear on your purpose and what you value; and communicating your “yes” and “no” from that starting place. For example,  say  you are asked to work back late very often and it is starting to adversely affect your family life. You feel guilty about saying “no” to your boss and you feel like you are letting down your family. This is a no win situation. You will need to say “no” to the overtime, but how? Think about your purpose. You want to take care of your family AND you want to make a positive contribution at work. So you need to communicate that you value both…use this guideline – YES – NO – YES.

Start with a YES: “I really love this job and making a significant contribution here are work. I also really love the role I play as a mother / father / Aunty …etc

Then add the NO: Fulfilling these two demands at the moment, especially with all the overtime required at work, means that I don’t feel like I am meeting these important commitments. So unfortunately, I won’t be able to stay back this week.

Then end with a YES: I understand the work needs to be done, so how about I work with you to see if we can find other ways to accomplish the work that doesn’t mean staying back late…

Check out the book “The Power of a Positive No” by William Ury for more strategies like the one above.

Share the Leadership

We often rely on the Boss or Executive Team to demonstrate leadership, and then get a little upset when they fail to meet our expectations. Dealing with difficult situations and people often requires us to share the leadership rather than expecting someone else to behave better or solve our problems for us.

A shared leadership model says that the leader is not an all knowing all seeing all sensing super-human. To the contrary, they are human; which means they are flawed, just like us! So think about how you can share the leadership load. How can you be more accountable for the relationship, and how can you better understand the priorities of your leader so that you can proactively act to help them achieve these priorities. What kind of language does a good leader display, is your language demonstrating similar characteristics? If you are complaining and not offering to be part of the solution, then probably not!

How often do you check in with your leaders about how they are feeling, rather than just expecting them to be concerned about how you are feeling? And last but not least, how often do you give your leader feedback about their behaviours and leadership impacts, both negative and positive but hopefully always constructive? If you have never given them honest feedback, I can guarantee that you are probably not having your expectations met by them.



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