The Art of Managing Difficult People

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Original Publication Exchange Magazine

How to be a good manager, deal with "problem" employees and not lose your mind in the process.

“Watch out; here comes old wet blanket Willy, again. Nothing suits him. He’s managed to shoot down every idea I’ve ever had.”

“He’s not so bad. You should try working for silent Sally. At least you know where you stand! Sally never says what she thinks. She was with me when I made the presentation that got us the Acme contract and she has never even mentioned it to me.”

Working with difficult people like these is frustrating and annoying. They rub others the wrong way; are hard to get along with and tend to make life miserable for everyone. They are disruptive to the organization and are the source of endless complaints and bad feelings.

You cannot get rid of these kinds of people, short of firing them. Delightful as this may seem at times, it isn’t a very practical solution. Furthermore, it is extremely hard to turn troublemakers into sweet, loveable people. It can be done, but it takes professional counselors and a great deal of time.

The key to dealing with these individuals lies in understanding the psychology that can explain why they do what they do. There are dozens of kinds of difficult people. There are the chronic complainers, the overbearing experts, the negativists, the stallers, and those so anxious to please that they will agree with anything that you say, until you turn your back. Regardless of the type, there are psychological profiles that can help managers understand a particular brand of behaviour

Take Willy for example: Willy is what is known as a negativist. No matter what someone proposes to him, he will respond with “killer statements” designed to murder the idea before it gets off the ground. The Willys of the world frequently meet change with comments such as; “It won’t work; we tried that before; it’s no use trying something like that; or forget it; they would never allow you to do it.” Negativists throw cold water on anything and everyone and seem to be experts at finding faults.

What makes the negativist behave like this? People like Willy feel defeated and are consumed by an attitude of hopelessness. The negativist believes that the world is full of forces that block people and that these forces are completely beyond anyone’s control. Psychologists say that these people have an external locus of control. They feel that the world controls them. To take a stand and exert some influence over events is completely foreign to their way of thinking.

Anyone who thinks like this becomes angry and resentful of life in general and especially those people who are always coming up with ideas, projects or plans that would seem to require bucking the system. It is probable that as children, negativists never learned how to cope with life’s disappointments. Being unwilling or unable to accept any responsibility for causing any of their own problems, they developed a habit of blaming fate, or those in authority over them, for being the cause of their problems.

Dealing with this kind of individual presents a major challenge. First of all, avoid getting drawn into their way of thinking. Don’t believe their killer statements. Perhaps your plan isn’t perfect, but if you listen to the negativist and stop believing in yourself, or your proposal, you are doomed to failure. Try to be realistic, but optimistic. Every time they say something negative, counter it with a positive optimistic statement. Never argue with these people or try to persuade them that they are wrong. This is almost impossible to do. You will be trying to overcome a lifetime of habits, and it’s worth remembering that, “ a person convinced against his will, remains unconvinced still”

Some positive things you can do are to set a horror floor, that is, ask Willy what is the worst thing that can happen if you proceed with your idea. This tends to diminish the power of the negative ideas and to ease the negativist’s talents for pointing out flaws. After all, they have great experience doing this and are really quite good at it. Why not capitalize on their ability? Listen to what they have to say and then go back to the drawing board and tidy up those potential problem areas,

Now what about Silent Sally? She is a prime example of another problem personality. Sally is a clam. When she is faced with ideas, people or situation that make her uncomfortable, she adopts a silent and unresponsive mode of behaviour. There are many varieties of Sallys but they all have the same psychological make-up. Their behaviours can be best understood when one realizes that this is their way of dealing with situations that they see as threatening or potentially painful.

Somewhere, Sally has learned that it is better to say nothing than to risk getting in trouble or committing herself. Some Clams feel that no one will suspect how unprepared or how stupid they are, if they keep their mouths shut.

How can you work with clams? First of all, you have to get them to open up and talk. You can do this by asking them questions. Never ask simple questions that can be answered by a nod of the head or a mere “yes” or “no”. Instead, ask open-ended questions such as, “What did you like best about our meeting with the Acne group?”

You should also try to make it safe for the clam to open up to you. Remember, they think that they may be in some danger by opening their mouths. You might say something like, “Sally, I really respect your opinion and I’d welcome your comments about my presentation to the Acme group. What did you think about it?” Put this way, Sally knows that it is O.K. to comment and that it is safe to do so.

While dealing with difficult people isn’t easy, it is worth the effort. You avoid arguments and hard feelings and get things done without frustration. Learning how to cope with problem people will allow you to enjoy your job, be more productive and lower your blood pressure.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.