Leading difficult people? Are you actually the difficult one?

Posted by Trevor Bibic on 20-Jul-2016 11:30:00

In my last post, I focused on the concept of how you should prioritise empowering the people you lead, rather than ‘managing’ them. In this article, I want to say something about ‘difficult’ people. It is fair to say that the process of empowering isn’t always met with open arms!

I find that leaders very agreeable to the concepts of prioritising the needs and development of staff. With that said, it seems that in every leadership workshop I run, that I will hear “yes, but…” and the story of a ‘difficult’ person will be shared. It is an emotive subject and words such as ‘frustrating’, ‘upsetting’, ‘annoying’ etc. all come up.

I totally empathise. I have worked with and managed people who can be best described as challenging. It can sometimes feel powerless. So, I wanted to share some thoughts on how you can work with these people to improve the working relationship between you.

How to be a great leader  


To be clear, this is not how to ‘deal’ with these difficult people, and this is not about performance management. There is a place for that, and it is important to understand how to manage that process, but first you should see if you can do something so that you never have to go to more extreme measures.


As I argued in the previous article, the initiative is with you to get the best out of people. Are they actually ‘difficult’ or is that just your perception because you haven’t really understood the cause of the behaviour.


5 tips to help you turn things around


1. They didn’t get up looking to give you a difficult day. So why are they behaving in a challenging way?

One common feature of much advice in this area is that the vast majority people don’t wake and get excited at the prospect of giving you a hard time at work. Often that means that they are going to make their own lives more difficult. But they can’t help it. So you have to ask yourself, what is having such an influence on them that they behaving in this less than ideal way?

In my own experience, I learned this the hard way when a member of staff was systematically upsetting other areas of the company, to the point where hoping it would sort itself out was no longer an effective strategy. I talked privately with that person and said “what’s up?” – the effect was dramatic. A lot of factors were shared and I could help with the vast majority of them. This individual’s performance and work relationships improved dramatically.


 2., Have you taken the time to get to know your team and their priorities?


You could be pushing people in a direction that they just aren’t bought into. For example, while profit can be VERY important to a manager, the people on the ground might not care. However, if you know what they do care about, you can make a link between your needs and theirs. This is much more likely to encourage engagement. If we hit our profit target for the year, everyone will get an extra day of holiday.


3. One useful tool that I have encountered helps classify what ‘threat’ has triggered the undesired behaviour.

We all have certain threat triggers that will cause us to behave in ways that are not exactly productive. Understanding the threat that has been triggered allows you to approach the person’s behaviour differently and reduce the impact of the threat. In the work of David Rock, he identifies 5 possible triggers:

  • Status — position, identity, respect, authority
  • Certainty — understanding, predictability, truth
  • Autonomy — freedom, choice, control
  • Relatedness — belonging, acceptance, inclusion
  • Fairness— equity, impartiality, unselfishnessTake a read of this wondlerful blog on the subject to read more about this. http://www.edbatista.com/2010/03/scarf.html     


4. Don't explode.

Deal with the challenging behaviour as soon you can. Don’t let it build up and eventually lose your temper. Don’t wait until appraisal/performance reviews when memories and context have faded. Here is a communication strategy to help you with that discussion:


  • Describe the Behaviour or event causing the problem
  • Explain the Effect on you, the team or the department
  • Specify the Action you want them to take
  • Outline the (+ve) Result of changing

5. Say thank you.  

Very simply, sneak around and catch your people doing things right! Show your appreciation. This is a proactive strategy to help prevent ever getting to the point where people’s behaviour is a problem. It is a very common refrain of disgruntled staff – ‘no-one appreciates the work that I do’. What is worse is that this is often people who are doing great work, while we focus on dealing with the ‘difficult’ staff. Quick tip – be specific about what they have done well. “Good job” is ineffectual.

For more fantastic advice and support, why not book a coaching session with Trevor? Click on the link below to get started.


Become a great leader! Book a coaching appointment with us today


Topics: leadership, management, leaders, difficult people

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