Have you ever had to work with someone difficult? Have you ever had to manage a difficult person? Have you ever left a job because you really couldn’t stand working with someone?
Over the years, Commitment has coached and trained many people who have told us they work with difficult colleagues. Here are some examples of difficult people at work, alongside quick tips on how to deal with them:
The Critic: “Bad idea, that will never work”
This person disagrees with everything you say and do, always finding problems and difficulties, and never seeing the opportunities. They like to pick apart your work and show why their view is better. They focus on even the smallest details and mistakes.
Firstly, remember that some criticism is helpful, as it drives you to improve. So the first step is to evaluate what they say and extract anything useful. But if the criticism is relentless and unhelpful, every time they criticise you should ask them for specific examples, specific evidence and specific suggestions. Eventually, they’ll see it’s too much work to criticise you, because you always press them for more information. And don’t get distracted or dragged down by their negativity; focus on the road ahead of you and the direction that is right for you.
The Eggshell: “Don’t tell me that because I can’t deal with it”
This is a very fragile, sensitive person, who is difficult to talk to because they commonly misunderstand you, take your comments personally and become negative, upset or angry. Interestingly, sensitive people are often among the top performers in an organisation.
Recognise that this person is feeling insecure about their job, their abilities, their power. Try to find ways to offer support and encouragement, reassure them that they are doing well, and reduce stress and pressure if possible. Make sure that when you give them feedback, you do so gently and slowly, never make it personal, and be sure they understand before you move on. See if you can give them tasks that they find meaningful, by finding out what motivates them.
The Not-My-Job-er: “That is not in my job description”
This person refuses to do anything that isn’t in their official job responsibilities, even if it is a small and simple task.
In our experience this attitude is often linked to low self-esteem and feeling under-valued; it is a form of revenge on colleagues because of unhappiness with how they’re being treated. If you are the manager, talk to them about whey they are unhappy and find them development opportunities. Explain why you expect them to take on the task and why you value it. If you are a colleague, explain why you value their help and persuade them that they are the best person to do the job.
The Tank: “Do it my way or get out of my way”
This person has a tendency to bulldoze through any obstacles, including any people who they think are in their way. They are dictatorial and often angry and aggressive, and they like to take out their frustrations on others.
Firstly, if the person is bullying you or a colleague, do report it to HR or a senior colleague that you trust. You do not have to tackle the problem alone and you should speak up. Remember that you are not the problem!
It is very important to be assertive with a Tank – if you show weakness, they will exploit it. Stay very calm and polite and say what you want. Describe clearly the impact of their behaviour (“When you do x, it makes me feel y, and the result is z”) and state clearly what you want them to do differently to give a better outcome. You may then need to remind them of that conversation later, if they go back to the bad behaviour. Eventually, with multiple reminders from you, they should start to change.
The Uncommitted: “It can wait, I’ll start it tomorrow”
Work is a very low priority for this person and they do as little as possible, without any urgency.
Usually they need to be given clear goals, standards and expectations, and then they need careful monitoring. But it’s also important to try to establish the cause of the problem. Talk to them to see if they have a problem with the project/ the employer/ you/ another person/ home life, and see if there is anything you can do to help. Clearly set out the goals and expectations, and check that they understand. Agree how and how often their progress will be monitored, and the consequences of inaction.
The Perfectionist: “I’ll never be happy unless we achieve (unrealistic target)”
This person has unrealistic standards and criticises even excellent work that is praised by others, stating that it is unacceptable to him or her.
It is important to understand that they are expressing their own self-doubt, not your inadequacies. Acknowledge where there was room for improvement (“I agree that next time I could focus more on…”) but force them to also explore the positives in what happened. For the next time, work with them in advance to set more realistic expectations for themselves and others.
The Change Resister: “I liked it better the old way”
This person thinks change is negative and finds reasons to fight it e.g. they won’t implement it or sometimes they even sabotage it.
Make sure that you involve them from the start and that you are using solid change management methods. Plan ahead: anticipate their likely points of resistance and think how you will deal with each. Gradually introduce change to them so that they have time to get used to it, and make it relatable – they need to understand it and how they fit in to it. Answer their questions and give them space and time to question you.
The Gossip: “Let me tell you what is REALLY happening”
This person feels a lack of control over his/her environment or other people, so spreads rumours and gossip to help regain that control.
The simplest way to deal with this is to make sure that everyone has the information and facts they need, so they have no need to listen to the Gossip. But you can also confront the Gossip and call out the bad behaviour. State what you have heard and give them a chance to discuss their real grievance. Tell them that the gossip will not be tolerated and say you are prepared to go to the person they gossiped about and reveal what was said. Never respond with more comments about the person/topic of gossip.
The Blamer: “I didn’t do it, it was his fault!”
This person tries to shift the blame to others, and feels better seeing others get into trouble.
Give them very specific examples of when and how their error, mistake or miscalculation caused a problem. Do not let them distract you by talking about other people, even where those others were also at fault. Ask the person how they will rectify the problem and what actions they will take to ensure it does not happen again.
The Victim: “I have given up my life for you and nobody cares”
This person often comes in early and stays late. They complain about workload and difficult people. They feel their efforts are under-appreciated.
They respond well to regular, positive feedback on how much you appreciate their contributions and hard work, especially in front of colleagues. Be aware that many have difficult home lives, and so work provides a distraction and even a safe space for them, so be sensitive to this.
To conclude, difficult people exist in all workplaces and to be effective in our jobs we need to know how to handle them. In general, staying calm, building a rapport, trying to understand the reasons for their behaviour and focusing only on what can be changed are good building blocks for success. But we fully recognise that sometimes you may need to escalate the problem to a higher authority, and that very occasionally, in extreme circumstances, the only viable solution is to remove yourself from the situation by finding a different job.