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Managing difficult people

Dealing with difficult situations and people in the workplace is challenging, however it pays off. Not only can it improve your own work, it also creates a better environment for your team when you address the problems a difficult co-worker might be causing for others. The truth is, you won’t get along with everyone you work with, but as a leader you are in a position to mitigate the damage difficult co-workers can cause. When you are dealing with your challenging tam members, consider these five practical steps to improve working relationships and performance:

1. Identify the reasons why they are difficult

Dealing with difficult people at work starts with self-awareness, so ask yourself if you might be part of the problem. The first step in developing productive relationships is to accept and reflect on the cause and your role in the tension and how you are responding to it. Difficult people often don’t realise the degree to which they drain others – their own emotions and behaviour are the norm to them, so they don’t notice that other people have different boundaries. Very few people get up in the morning with the goal of making their colleagues’ lives miserable, so it’s worth taking the time to think about the other person’s point of view. Try to get to the bottom of why your team member is acting out – is it about being dissatisfied with their role or the business? Asking relevant questions and listening to your employees can often quickly identify the issue and help you plan for relevant steps to resolve the situation.

2. Listen more and talk less

Dealing with difficult people is not an easy task and it requires time and practice, as well as reflection. Don’t rush to act, instead take a step back and consider the options before saying something that you might regret. Listen to everything they say, but don’t feel that you need to respond to everything you are hearing. Problem solving comes in many shapes and forms, and often a simple step back to have a look at the bigger picture can be a very effective way to assess the problem and work together towards a solution.

3. Provide constructive feedback

Simply calling out someone for being difficult won’t solve the problem. They need to be given a specific, constructive feedback that doesn’t just relate to them, but also links to the bigger picture. There are several ways leaders can improve how they deliver powerful and productive feedback – focusing on how they would want to hear it themselves, understanding the recipient’s position and emotions, linking it to the future and what the employee can do to move forward; just to name a few. Feedback doesn’t have to be long, but it needs to be specific and constructive so that it can lead to a positive change.

4. Acknowledge the differences

The ability to work through issues constructively is critical to a healthy business culture and growth. Successful leaders know and value the differences and unique abilities of their teams and they know how to integrate them into the bigger picture. Leaders are often worried about being liked, however the cost of being liked is too high. When it comes to managing difficult people, instead of worrying about being liked, focus should be on respecting the other person’s view and expecting them to respect yours.

5. Overcome motivational barriers

Motivation is personal – what motivates one person, means nothing to another. There is no universal formula and leaders need to listen and understand individual motivational drivers to get the most out of their teams. Whilst many managers focus on motivating people through motivational talks and company socials, the truth is that unless people are in the right role and clear about their contribution to the overall business success, being disconnected and disengaged will continue to be a problem.

At Acumen we pride ourselves in offering learning solutions that help leaders and their teams to drive success. Our ‘Managing difficult people’ programme is designed to equip delegates with the skills and knowledge to manage difficult people and their behaviour more effectively. The programme will examine the importance of handling difficult people in a constructive way as well as encouraging delegates to produce an action plan of their learning. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at

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