How to Deal with Difficult People
You know who they are. When you see them coming down the hall, you try to hide. You are always on alert when they are around. They drain you emotionally. They deplete the energy of the team. And we have all had them as leaders.
So how do you effectively deal with difficult people?
There are five options to consider when seeking to deal with a difficult person. But before you deal with someone who is difficult, you must first take a look at yourself. Could your leadership be the problem? Do you care for people? Are you intentional to build your team? Do you insist on core values being practiced by all?
If you have been consistent in these areas, but still have a problem with one person, clearly a gap exists. Another way to know that it is not you, is to determine if that person has a problem with everyone else. So if you must deal with a difficult person, here are your options:
This is usually not an ideal option. However, it is an option nonetheless. When you let these people run free, you and your team will pay a price. Sometimes, you can choose to temporarily ignore them. Other times you are forced to ignore them, as your hands may be tied for many reasons. So I hope that if you choose this option, it will not become a long-term solution.
Many argue that people who just don’t conform, need to be clearly informed. Meaning, we have to be clear to them that their behavior is undesirable, because after all they may not know they are being a vexation to everyone. Makes sense, right? Well, while that may be true, and we should do that out of fairness to them, here is what I have discovered: If a team member has such low Emotional Intelligence that he or she doesn’t even realize they are being a menace, they are usually not a person I want to have with me long-term anyway. A person who can’t tell they are bringing down the team, or even worse if they know and don’t care, is rarely able to change, even with the clearest explanations and clarifications. So, while informing them is a second option, it should be practiced sparingly, acknowledging that there are usually major limits here.
So what about confronting them? Just standing up to them? Why can’t you just very clearly, and even forcefully, communicate what kind of behavior you expect? The problem with that, at least in my experience, is that these people would acquiesce, but only for a brief period. People who only back down when confronted with their behavior have a very high likelihood of reoffending. If repeated confrontation is required in order to bring about positive changes, then prepare yourself for a culture of confrontation and dissonance on your team. It’s not a good option. And I am not willing to do it. It consumes my emotional energy, and that of the team, just to deal with one bad actor.
However, sometimes clear boundaries get crossed, and the best choice is to confront them in the moment. Otherwise your team spirit will be deflated. So, while this method must be practiced on occasion, I really don’t think confrontation is the best long-term solution.
As a rule, I believe the best long-term solution to deal with difficult people that must stay on your team, is to manage them. What do I mean by “manage them?” Well, here are the steps:
- Know that they will require energy and effort. Otherwise, if you are not expecting it, you will feel like a failure when you have to attend to their emotional needs, or repair the damage they cause.
- Truly care for them. As a good leader, hopefully you love everyone, including those who bring you stress. If you are not careful, you can start having negative feelings toward them. Don’t let yourself get pulled into that. Remember that every human, regardless of how badly they behave, think they are doing the right thing.
- Don’t take it personally. Know that their bad behavior is not personally directed toward you. They most likely act the same way with everyone—at home, at church, with their friends, etc.
- Keep them close. If this is an option, I keep these people very close to me personally, in order to mitigate their negative impact on others.
- Build a relationship with them. As much as you hate doing it, you must build connections and bridges with them. Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
- Spend time with them. Consistently spend time with them to learn about them, predict how they are feeling, and try to direct their negative energies.
- Fill their bucket. All of us have unique facets to our personalities. What are they for that person? What do they value? What can you give them that they would appreciate? How can you earn their trust?
- Draw boundaries. Now, this is key. Many leaders attend to the above steps, and then stop. That won’t work. As you slowly build the connection, begin clearly establishing the boundaries that are important to you. Explain, and re-explain the culture you are trying to build. Ask for their help. But most importantly, as soon as the line is crossed, find a good time to point it out. Repeatedly insist that they not cross the line.
- Intervene early. When these people do cross the line, address it swiftly, but not necessarily confrontationally.
- Don’t be afraid of them. When you are afraid of someone, you cannot be a good leader to him or her. Even if you are very uncomfortable with a difficult individual, you must reach deep and find the courage to do what needs to be done.
The disadvantage to managing difficult people is that, if you are not careful, they will require a lot of your energy and time. Instead of focusing on how to improve your team, you end up becoming consumed and worried about how they are feeling that day. This is a very common trap for leaders. If we are not careful, we slip into spending a significant amount of our time and emotional reserve on managing them.
So when do you let them go? Now. First, make sure that you are not being unfair, and that you have done your due diligence in resolving the issues. There are many thoughts and theories on when to let someone go. The commonly accepted human resources advice is to warn them in writing a few times. Then, if there is no change, move forward.
Here are another couple of ideas. This is an aggressive point of view, but one I heard that the famous Anthony Robbins adopts. As soon as you begin to wish someone was not on your team, they should be let go. Another way to think about it is, if they were applying for a new position now, would you hire them? If the answer is no, they should be let go. If you are not sure, then give them a few months. If your answer is still unsure, let them go.
Listen to me, friend. I am the biggest proponent of gentle leadership, calm leadership, empowering leadership, and forgiving leadership. But for many years, I practiced “overly-tolerant” leadership. And to this day, I still have to be keenly aware of my tendency to do so. Remember the axiom, “hire slow, fire fast.” This may seem hard, but it has a lot of truth in it. Rarely, have I changed my mind when I thought someone needed to be let go, even with the most gentle, loving care I could provide.
You are the protector of the team, and of the dream, and you are responsible to your organization to make tough decisions. It can be scary to make these decisions, but you must find the emotional fortitude to get it done.
What if you just cannot let them go? Or you don’t want to? For example, what if that person is your spouse, or a very valuable and irreplaceable person in your operation? That’s when you do your best to manage them. I would advise you not to ignore them, and don’t be consistently confrontational with them.
Finally, cut yourself some slack. All leaders occasionally end up with difficult people on their teams. It’s normal. It’s okay. But it’s not okay for you, as the leader, to avoid dealing with these people who are choking the life out of your team.
May you have the strength and wisdom to lead well.
For Further Reading: