White Paper: Managing Difficult People

Difficult people. Every workplace has them, and the common cry resounds, “Why can’t we just fire them?”

Why? Because firing people is expensive. Think of it as throwing all that employee’s training, experience, and corporate knowledge down the drain. The time and overall cost of searching for a replacement, interviewing all the candidates, screening them, hiring them, training them, and getting them up to the level of the difficult person you got rid of is generally far greater than if you had just figured out how to keep the difficult person around.

And then there are the legal considerations involved in firing, which could lead to additional costs in defensive legal action. If a person is difficult in the workplace, he or she will be far more difficult as a disgruntled former employee, and lawsuits are likely to abound.

So, what can you do? First, be sure your hiring practices are extremely rigorous. The tougher it is for a candidate to get a job — and the more time you or your managers spend with that candidate before a hire is made — the more likely you are to weed out difficult people before making the mistake of hiring them. Abrasive tendencies will rear their ugly heads at some point if a candidate has to jump through a tough series of red-tape hoops. And if you see a glimmer of “difficult” in a job candidate, who should be trying to make a good impression, you know you are in for trouble down the line if you go ahead and make the hire.

Second, recognize that people are difficult because they want attention. They are focused on their needs first, and the needs of others are always secondary. Their emotional immaturity is just part of who they are, and it’s your job to figure out how to make them as productive as possible.

Difficult people’s emotional immaturity leads to a variety of unacceptable behaviors which can tear down the morale of those around them. Some “difficults” might use sarcasm; others might use put-downs; and some might be downright aggressive and call people names. Keep in mind that each of these tactics could be an attempt by difficult people to make themselves feel superior. Unfortunately, they do so at the expense of their co-workers and they drag down the overall level of productivity as a result.

While some difficult people are aggressive, others are difficult by being irritatingly passive. They complain about their lot in life and waste huge amounts of time whining and blowing small issues out of proportion. They blame others for failures, conveniently leaving out details of their own roles in doomed ventures. By playing the victim, these employees never have to face their own inadequacies — and they will never learn to overcome them until their behavior is confronted.

There are certain tactics that will work across the board, no matter which type of difficult person you are dealing with.

  1. Listen to them. The only way to identify their unmet needs is to talk to them and find out what’s really going on.
  2. Paraphrase what you think they are saying to be sure you are really “getting it.” Sometimes a difficult person will hear someone else’s interpretation of their problem and realize how petty it sounds. Or, they will find a solution when hearing it from someone else’s perspective.
  3. Help the difficult person develop an ideal course of action, weighing the pros and cons and looking at the big picture.
  4. Help difficult people achieve short-term goals to build their self-esteem and their belief in themselves as problem solvers.

Then there are some other things you can try, depending on the difficult person you are trying to reach.

  1. Isolate the trigger of their difficult behavior. Is it a thing, a person, a task? Help them address the trigger and overcome the negative effect it causes.
  2. Identify a pattern in the difficult behavior. Most difficult people act up after something “lights the fuse” — at work or at home.
  3. Stay positive. Getting negative plays into their need for excess attention.
  4. Be direct and non-judgmental — using only the facts and leaving emotions out of it.
  5. Know when you are out of your league. Sometimes only trained psychological professionals will be able to help. Refer difficult people to your company’s EAP, if you have one.
  6. DON’T try to manipulate them into quitting. As we said before, it’s expensive to replace an employee. Do all you can to get the difficult person up to speed and to get the emotional needs met so he or she can be a productive member of your corporate team.


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