Executive Success: Dealing with Difficult People

Difficult People

There’s no avoiding it.  You’re bound to come across someone who’s difficult to deal with. 

It’s inevitable as soon as you add different personalities, experiences, and backgrounds to the mix.

Who Are They?

They may be someone we report to or someone who reports to us.  Or they may be a peer, a vendor, or a client.  The bottom line is that it’s going to happen and generally can’t be avoided.

If we are to be effective as a leader, we must become good at dealing with those difficult people.

Whoever they are, they usually cause anxiety, frustration, concern, and/or anger in us.

The irony is that when we become anxious, frustrated, concerned or angry, we ourselves, can become difficult to deal with.

Consequently, it is imperative that we become adept at dealing with them.  Occasionally we can avoid the person altogether, but more often than not, it’s a relationship we have to address.

Dealing With Them

Difficult PeopleOne course of action is simply to tolerate the other person.  This course of action (or more accurately, inaction) is one which avoids confrontation and maintains the status quo.  Productivity remains consistent and there’s no risk of workplace “drama.”

Unfortunately, by not dealing with the situation, you end up perpetuating a number of counterproductive dynamics.

You end up expending valuable energy by “tolerating” an unsatisfactory situation.

It affects your attitude, your thoughts, and your productivity.

Additionally, in your attempt to shield or isolate yourself from this person, they end up feeling neglected and unappreciated.

When that happens, they tend to “check out”, becoming complacent and apathetic – simply going through the motions at work.  It’s not a very fruitful course of action.

Negative Team Dynamics

There’s one other negative dynamic that exists when we tolerate a difficult person.  Although it may feel like the issue is between the two of you, in fact, a difficult person affects your entire team.  When you allow a difficult person to persist, it reflects on your leadership style and your values.

This, in turn, negatively impacts your ability to lead effectively.

Additionally, the age-old adage holds true, “One bad apple spoils the barrel,” as will be evidenced by the people who will come forth voicing their relief once the difficult person is gone.

Looking In The Mirror

Another course of action might be to reflect on our own behaviors and attitudes, and summarily decide to change ourselves.  While this occasionally may be appropriate, generally it’s not.  (A good test is to observe whether there are many “difficult” people on your team.)

In fact, our initial reaction to this course of action might be this:

“Why should I be the one to change?  It’s clear the other person is the one with the problem.”

Not only would that be valid, but it sheds some light on how to handle the situation, because if our thought is to ask the other person to change, their reaction would most likely be the same.

Why should I be the one to change?

This of course poses a problem because in fact, that person generally IS the problem.

Being Transparent with Truth

The answer to this dilemma is to have an honest and transparent conversation with the person.  As a leader, we have the opportunity and an obligation to develop people and help them grow.

  • We need to be compassionate, yet strong.
  • We need to be empathetic, yet work change their perspective.
  • We accomplish this by acknowledging the situation and by asking good questions.

This course of action helps us understand their perspectives and motivations.  By doing this, not only can you positively impact their enjoyment of and satisfaction with their work, but you’ll help them to be more effective and productive.

Gaining Clarity

If nothing else, you’ll help them gain clarity about themselves and then help them (in a positive way) move on to another opportunity which better suits their skills and their perspectives.

Mastering the ability to effectively deal with difficult people will enhance your leadership effectiveness and enrich the lives of the people around you.


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Michael Beck
Michael J. Beck is President of Michael Beck International, Inc
He helps leaders improve their personal effectiveness and productivity
Email | LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | Web | Blog | Skype: xleaders | 866-385-8751

Image Sources: arbitragemagazine.com, trainingvancouver.com

6 responses to “Executive Success: Dealing with Difficult People

  1. Liked this post a lot 🙂

    Except for the section Looking in the Mirror..

    I am not sure that your suggestion of looking at the rest of your team and deciding if there is only one difficult person on your team it must be THEM is a good way of going about things. You call it a good test. I think its a dangerous test if it is the ONLY test you use.

    It seems too arbitrary; A similar arbitrary statement could have been look at the rest of the team and if none of them are difficult you have build a team of yes people.

    That difficult relationship may be the person who is saying early Emperor’s new clothes, it may be the diversity you need as uncomfortable as it is.


    • HI Sarah,
      Thanks for your thoughts on this. But I have a different slant on the (accurate) observations you’ve made.

      My article relates to people who are difficult to deal with. In my mind, that is not the same as someone who disagrees with me. Other, perspectives are critical to solicit, and a team filled with “Yes” people is definitely not smart.

      Additionally, just because someone is difficult to deal with on a particular issue, does not make them “a difficult person”. I feel that if someone is generally argumentative, then most people would consider them to be difficult.

      Hope that helps clarify my views on this. 🙂


  2. Great post Michael! Your discussion about the impacts of “dealing” with difficult people and it’s outcomes and impacts, is spot on. One thing I might add is that you can actually Make Difficult People Disappear (without having to go to jail or hire an “uncle guido”) and not “DEAL” with them at all. That is actually a book title and making them disappear is not the same as ignoring them, but is a combination of accepting your own responsibility, to which you refer, and altering your communication methods to meet the needs of those different than you, who have been given that “difficult” label as a result. Enjoy and thanks for bringing up the topic!


    • Thank you, Monica. I’d love to hear more about the additional solution you’re suggesting. Would you mind expanding on it a bit more here in the comments? (And maybe direct us to the book you refer to?)


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