Dealing with ‘difficult’ people at work

Difficult person

We’ve all encountered ‘difficult’ people in the workplace. Whether it’s a boss, a colleague or a subordinate, it’s challenging working in close quarters with someone whose personality or approach to work doesn’t always gel with our own and who pushes our buttons.

You know who I’m talking about – the sort of person who rarely listens to others’ opinions but is always pushing their agenda, who doesn’t pitch in but still expects to get their own way, and who is loud, aggressive,discourteous or constantly negative.

The key to managing difficult personalities is to become familiar with common behaviours and personality types. Once you understand why people act in a certain way, you can better understand how to work with them. High performing organisations readily embrace a culture of giving and receiving feedback – after all, it can take a village to onboard and develop teams, and a gentle reminder of expected behaviour never goes astray. But ultimately, you can’t change others, only how you deal with them, which is vital to ensure a challenging colleague doesn’t impact how you feel about your job.

There are four common behaviours we see in the workplace:

1. Dominant-controlling

D-C personalities can be fast-acting, outgoing, bold and assertive. They like challenges but can get impatient, aggressive, demanding, challenging and power hungry. They can be bullies and insensitive to others’ feelings. While D-Cs can be helpful when you need to make a tough decision, they can be motivated by getting people to do what they want, their way, which can make them difficult to work with and, when challenged – even mildly – they find it hard to manage their anger and aggression.

Working with them:

It’s hard to work with Dominant-Controlling personalities. They continually make demands and dictate orders. It often feels demeaning and you can fear them, have an urge to fight them or dislike yourself for giving in to them. But if you approach them in the right way, things can work out.

To work best with a dominant-controlling person, you need to think like one. Get to the point and stick to the topic – avoid small-talk or vague expressions. Be brief, direct and respectful, back up your position with evidence and refuse to bend.

2. Analytical-obsessive

These personalities are methodical, logical and detail-oriented. They like perfection but their focus on doing things the right way can come across as nit-picky. A-Os take pride in high standards and are systematic in their approach to problems and projects. These are not bad qualities but they can be inflexible, and stand in the way of innovation. When they feel criticised, they avoid the issue, demonstrating their distaste of confrontation and argument.

Working with them:

There is a great need for people like these in business, but when you’re trying something new you need to approach them with caution. Firstly, acknowledge their work and their concerns without being critical or argumentative. Address their apprehensions then use logical language to map the path forward.

3. Expressive-impulsive

Expressive-impulsive people are enthusiastic, people-oriented, optimistic and social but can also be self-centred, reactive and charged up, seen as highly strung and pushy. They rarely think of consequences and refuse to take responsibility when things go wrong.

Wanting to be recognised for their work is a hallmark of E-I personality types but they concentrate solely on their own opinions and the big picture, and ignore inconvenient details.

Working with them:

E-Is bring creativity and energy but are not always the best listeners and don’t like being confined or controlled. They can be hard to work with sometimes but there are strategies you can use. Rather than trying to control them, make an effort to build a rapport. Let them know you appreciate their energy and ideas then give them tasks that require them to organise their ideas – challenging them to plan properly will be necessary to get them to focus.

4. Skeptical-negative

The S-N’s glass is always half empty, which can wear colleagues down because their pessimistic, suspicious nature promotes poor morale in the workplace. Not only is it annoying when someone is always complaining, but worst of all their negative attitude impacts other people. They think nothing of bad mouthing decisions and blame factors other than themselves for the ills of the world.

Working with them:

When you have to work with consistently negative people it’s good to have some strategies so you can deal with it head on. Firstly, support them by hearing them but don’t buy into their negative behaviour. Focus on how they might do things differently to prevent them drifting into negativity.

The goal of adapting your behaviour to different situations is not to change who you are, but to help you recognise your own role in difficult interactions.  You can’t make other people less difficult so your challenge every day is to deal more effectively with the difficult people you meet. Next time you’re involved in a touchy interaction with a difficult colleague, take a moment before you say anything. Consider their approximate personality type and formulate an appropriate response without letting emotions get the better of you.


About the author

Kath Greenhough is the Senior Manager of Customer Success Organisation at e-learning provider Skillsoft (Asia pacific).