If you’ve landed here, you want some advice on how to manage difficult people. First, let me say that people generally don’t come to work wanting to be difficult. No one arrives at the office wanting to make life hard for their colleagues by being as awkward as possible.
Well, maybe there might be one or two people out there with a grievance. But most of your colleagues won’t be in that category!
When you see difficult people, it’s generally because their behavior is difficult. You don’t like how they respond to you or their work. And that is something you can deal with.
Here are three situations where a person may come across as being difficult, and how you can help the situation to see better behavior.
They are in the wrong job
Are they struggling to do their job properly? That can make someone feel and act defensively, which comes across as difficult behavior.
They could be out of their depth if they don’t have the skills to do the job. They might not feel able to ask for help.
Deal with the difficult
This could be as easy as recommending to their line manager that they have some training or get a buddy to help them in the role. But first, you have to find out if lack of skill really is the underlying problem here.
Talk to them about whether they have the resources they need to complete the task you’ve asked them to do. Talk about what support they have available. You can say something like, “You must have a lot on. Is there anyone you can delegate this to?”
They might be ready to tell you that there isn’t anyone else and that they don’t have the time to do it themselves. This could be a sign that they aren’t working at an appropriate level of efficiency (although it could also simply be a sign that they have too much to do).
Be aware that people may not want to tell you there is a problem. Who wants to admit that they can’t do their job? You might have to look for clues and offer support before it is asked for.
They are trying to meet unrealistic expectations
I’m sure on projects you’ve been in situations where someone has set an unrealistic deadline. Some of us may feel able to challenge those expectations and negotiate a better, more reasonable, position.
But not everyone can do that.
If your colleague is facing unrealistic expectations – perhaps on work that is nothing to do with your project – they can become overwhelmed and stressed. They won’t respond well to being interrupted to be given more work because they can’t cope with the work they already have.
Deal with the difficult
Talk to them about whether there are challenges with their workload that you could help with. In reality, you may not be able to do anything to actually ease the burden, but you could reschedule the work you want them to do, or find someone else to do it.
You could help them identify their top priority tasks so that they can more easily complete their work.
Remember: the unrealistic expectations might have come from you! Be honest with them and ask if it is something you’ve given them to do that is causing the stress.
They think no one is listening
I get frustrated when I’ve asked the kids to set the table for the third time. Imagine facing that level of frustration at work on a daily and persistent basis. When it feels like no one is listening, you end up carrying all the problems.
Your colleague might have some good suggestions that they feel need management attention. They might have the answer to a tricky issue. Or they might have gone for an internal job interview and felt that they weren’t able to show their best side.
Whatever the reason, frustration can manifest itself as apathy and difficult behavior. If no one cares about their contribution, why should they care about their job?
Deal with the difficult
If you see them warming up as you listen, frustration and feeling undervalued could be the reason why their behaviour is difficult.
Try to make them feel appreciated. Listen to their ideas. Include them in meetings. Look for ways to ease the frustration by acting on what they tell you, or explaining why it’s not possible to act on their suggestions.
Ultimately, you might not know why someone is behaving in a difficult way at work. There could be things going on in their personal life that they aren’t prepared to share with you. And if you are not their direct line manager, tackling those issues are tricky. You may need to talk about their behavior with their line manager so that together you can support the individual.
Try to see things from their perspective and be gracious. If they are open to help, give it. They might not want your help at this point, and if that is the case they are likely to see you as interfering.
Stay alert to body language and the signals they are sending you. Support where you can and see if a few small changes can squash the difficult behavior. If that doesn’t help the situation in the office, take some advice about what else you could do to make the working environment better for everyone.
Elizabeth Harrin is the creator of A Girl’s Guide to Project Management, which she started in 2006. She has won a number of awards for her internationally popular blog: "A Girl's Guide To Project Management." She also authors two additional blogs, regularly featuring interviews she conducts with industry experts: "Talking Work," and "The Money Files," on Gantthead.