Dealing With Difficult People Isn't Easy — Here's How Efficient Leaders Do It

Tirachard Kumtanom / Pexels

Employees Talking

Tirachard Kumtanom / Pexels

Bonnie Marcus M.Ed, CEC
Bonnie Marcus M.Ed, CEC10
It only takes one difficult person on your team to make your life miserable. You dread going to work. You’re distracted and it’s challenging to focus on your agenda. You are constantly thinking about what they’ll say or how they’ll behave each day before the day even starts. It consumes you, disrupts the work environment, and affects the department’s morale and productivity. Obviously, you need to do something before the situation gets worse (if possible). It’s critical that you take care of this in a timely and efficient manner before there are more consequences.
Having a troublesome person on your team not only affects the team but also your performance and reputation as a leader. You literally give your power away to this person by focusing your energy on them. As a leader, you need to take it back by taking control of the situation.
This is not easy. Speaking from my own experience as a manager dealing with difficult employees, I can honestly say that this is one of the most challenging things a leader ever has to confront. People look to you for answers. They look to you to take care of the situation and yet sometimes the answers aren’t straightforward. Finding a palatable solution can be complicated and difficult to facilitate.
Here’s how efficient leaders deal with difficult people.
They detach emotionally.
This is easier said than done. We often let difficult people get under our skin and before we know it, we start taking everything about their behavior and remarks personally. Even the mention of his/her name raises our blood pressure as we contemplate how to deal with them and run different scenarios through our mind. The longer we allow their disruptive behavior to continue, the more emotional we get.
Efficient leaders know better than to let their emotions take charge. Their emotional intelligence triggers the self-awareness that warns them that they’re off track and have lost objectivity. That self-awareness influences them to better understand how their emotions i.e. anger, betrayal, frustration, fear are either blocking their ability to take action or leading them to take action in an inappropriate manner.
Self-awareness leads to an emotional detachment which leads to effectively handling the issue.
They are clear about what the problem is.
When we are emotionally involved, we don’t see the problem clearly. The difficult situation often gets blown out of proportion and we get distracted from the real issue.
Efficient leaders take the time to objectively look at the dilemma and pin point what behavior truly is a concern. Once they are clear, they can then best assess how to approach the person.
They consult with HR.
The HR department can serve as a sounding board and offer advice on how to deal with a difficult person. This consult should be done sooner rather than later as they can provide potential solutions. Most importantly, they have the expertise to guide you and prevent you from an action that is not in compliance with company policy or employment law.
Efficient leaders seek advice and are open to different considering different approaches.
They have direct conversations.
The easy way out is to send an email or delegate the task of dealing with a difficult person. This isn’t the optimal approach however unless there are time and travel issues that can delay a face to face conversation.
Efficient leaders do their homework, know what they need to say, and handle it directly.
They establish expectations and timeframes for improvement with regular check-ins.
Although immediate dismissal may be appropriate, protocol usually suggests a specific timeline for the person to demonstrate improvement. In many cases, this is a 90 day probation period. This allows for the person to show their commitment to modifying their behavior and to meet the expectations laid out for their continued employment.
Efficient leaders, with advice from HR, will plan ahead and have a performance improvement plan in hand at the time of their meeting. If the employee will be terminated, they will also be prepared to talk about the terms of dismissal.
They don’t act defensively.
"This is tough," writes Barbara Markway Ph.D. on Psychology Today. "You’re naturally not enjoying the other person saying nasty things or things that you know aren’t true. You’re going to want to defend yourself. But the other person is so emotionally revved up, it’s not going to help. Remember, this is not about you. Don’t take it personally. (I know, easier said than done.)"
They keep extra space between them and the other person.
"Your instinct may be to try to calm the other person down by putting your arm on theirs, or some other similar gesture that may be appropriate in other contexts," Markway writes. "But if someone is already upset, avoid touch, as it might be misinterpreted."
They discharge their own stress.
"You had to put your natural reactions on hold for a while," Markway adds. "Now is the time to discharge some of that pent up adrenaline. Go for a run. Take your dog for a walk. Don’t let the emotions stay stuck in your body."
They fly like an eagle.
"Some people in our lives are simply not worth tussling with," writes Preston Ni M.S.B.A. of Psychology Today. "Your time is valuable, so unless there’s something important at stake, don’t waste it by trying to change or convince a person who’s negatively entrenched. As the saying goes: 'You can’t fly like an eagle if you hang out with turkeys!' Whether you’re dealing with a difficult colleague or an annoying relative, be diplomatic and apply the tips from this article when you need to interact with them. The rest of the time, keep a healthy distance."
They shift from being reactive to proactive.
"When you feel offended by someone’s words or deeds, come up with multiple ways of viewing the situation before reacting," Ni says. "For example, I may be tempted to think that my co-worker is ignoring my messages, or I can consider the possibility that she’s been very busy. When we avoid personalizing other people's behaviors, we can perceive their expressions more objectively. People do what they do because of them more than because of us. Widening our perspective on the situation can reduce the possibility of misunderstanding."
They pick their battles.
"Not all difficult individuals we face require direct confrontation about their behavior, Ni adds. "There are two scenarios under which you might decide not to get involved. The first is when someone has temporary, situational power over you. For example, if you’re on the phone with an unfriendly customer service representative, as soon as you hang up and call another agent, this representative will no longer have power over you.
"Another situation where you might want to think twice about confrontation is when, by putting up with the difficult behavior, you derive a certain benefit. An example of this would be an annoying co-worker, for although you dislike her, she’s really good at providing analysis for your team, so she’s worth the patience. It’s helpful to remember that most difficult people have positive qualities as well, especially if you know how to elicit them (see keys #5 and 6).
"In both scenarios, you have the power to decide if a situation is serious enough to confront. Think twice, and fight the battles that are truly worth fighting."
They're open to the bigger lesson.

"Most of the time, there is a much bigger life lesson to be learned aside from the situation where someone is being difficult," writes  of Lifehack. "It could be showing you how you relate to people in general, how you’re creating conflict, or what the conflict triggers in you.  Be open to the lesson that is bigger than the situation itself."

They interrupt the situation.

"People often behave like robots," Nies says. "We get triggered all the time and are often reacting to a story we loop in our heads. When dealing with someone difficult, interrupt the pattern by asking a question completely off-topic. This will offset their mental story, and you can approach the situation more proactively, rather than defensively."

They create bonds.

"Sometimes you can change the subject and agree on something totally different than the matter at hand in order to create a bond with the person," Neis advises. "Even a negative bond might do the trick, but be careful not to create a habit of negative bonding."

In summary, in order to handle a difficult person efficiently, let go of your own emotions about the situation, do your homework and get advice, put a plan in place, and communicate that plan in a timely and direct manner.
The truth is that there are all types of difficult people, and you're bound to run into difficult personalities throughout your career. We're not saying that dealing with difficult people in the workplace is easy. But don't get angry; take a deep breath — their difficult behavior doesn't have to instill the entire workplace with negativity and unproductive feelings toward one another. Coping with difficult people just takes a little bit of patience (even if you don't understand this person's behavior) and the aforementioned tips should help with conflict resolution.
Do you know any toxic people with difficult personalitied at work? What tips do you have for working with difficult people or combatting negativity in the workplace?
Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed, is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker focused on women's advancement in the workplace. A former corporate executive and CEO, Bonnie is the author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead, and co-author of Lost Leaders in the Pipeline: Capitalizing on Women's Ambition to Offset the Future Leadership Shortage.