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How to Deal with Difficult People as a Manager
Understanding and Overcoming Challenges - A Manager's Perspective on Dealing with Difficult People
Managing people is a complex and multifaceted skill that requires a mix of innate abilities, learned traits, and accumulated experience. Throughout one's career, numerous challenges may arise, and among the most significant is working with difficult people.
Avoiding difficult people begins with a good hiring process; however, when hiring many individuals, encountering tough personalities is inevitable.
In my career as a team leader and after hiring more than 50 people in recent years, I must admit I was lucky enough to work mostly with exceptional individuals. But from time to time, I also had to deal with difficult ones.
In this essay, I'm going to discuss the best approaches to address this kind of issues, drawing from established leadership theories and various experiences. By recognizing and understanding the motives and behavior of difficult individuals, working to address issues with them, and dealing with conflicts, a leader can effectively manage challenging team members and create a supportive and productive work environment.
🔎 Recognizing Difficult People
Leaders or managers are sometimes so busy and focused on making their teams productive that they struggle to recognize difficult people until it's too late to address or mitigate their behaviors.
That's why the first and most important step in dealing with tough individuals is to recognize them. There are no secret recipes or frameworks to follow; it's all about experience. Here are a few suggestions from my own.
Don’t skip 1-on-1 meetings, as this is where people tend to reveal their true selves. Having regular 1-on-1 meetings helps maintain a connection with your team members, especially new hires, where surprises are more likely to occur.
Use 360-degree anonymous feedback. In my experience, this is where difficult people tend to surface. Although the feedback is anonymous, you can at least become aware of the problem's existence.
Observe your team. It's essential to pay attention to how people interact with you and other team members. This is a list of behaviors that, in my experience, can trigger an alarm:
Not following common agreements
Resistance to change
Blaming others for their problems
Talking excessively and interrupting others
Note that these traits are not necessarily indicative of difficult people; they could simply be bad habits that individuals are not even aware of. As a leader, it's important to approach people exhibiting these behaviors without bias, provide them with feedback, and observe their reaction.
👷🏻♂️ Work with Difficult People
Suppose you suspect a difficult person is part of your team; now what? As a leader or manager, it's time to address their issues and work with this person effectively.
Adapt your Leadership Style
When working with difficult people, it's crucial for leaders to employ a flexible approach, adjusting their leadership style to accommodate the unique needs of each individual. By being adaptable, leaders can create a supportive work environment and more effectively address diverse challenges. One valuable framework for understanding and applying this adaptability is the Situational Leadership model, proposed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard.
The Situational Leadership theory emphasizes that effective leaders should adapt their leadership style based on their team's needs and the situation. This approach is particularly helpful when dealing with difficult people, as it enables leaders to tailor their strategy to address specific challenges and behaviors.
The four main leadership styles in this theory are:
Directing (S1): this style is best suited for situations where team members need clear guidance, particularly when they lack skills or knowledge (D1). In the context of dealing with difficult individuals, this approach can help provide structure and set expectations, ensuring they understand their responsibilities and desired outcomes.
Coaching (S2): this style involves offering support while maintaining a strong focus on the task at hand. When managing difficult people, this approach helps leaders build rapport, address performance issues, and offer constructive feedback (D2). By demonstrating genuine interest in the team member's growth and development, leaders can create a supportive environment that promotes learning and improvement.
Supporting (S3): this style is useful when team members have the necessary skills but may lack confidence or motivation (D3). For difficult individuals, this approach can help leaders understand the underlying issues and provide emotional support. By actively listening and empathizing, leaders can encourage open communication and help team members overcome personal or professional obstacles.
Delegating (S4): this style is appropriate for situations where team members have both the skills and motivation to complete tasks independently (D4). In the context of difficult people, this approach can be applied when the individual is competent but may struggle with interpersonal relationships. By granting autonomy and trusting the team member's abilities, leaders can foster a sense of responsibility and accountability, which may help improve their behavior.
By understanding these leadership styles and their applications, leaders can identify the most effective approach for managing difficult team members. Through flexibility and adaptability, leaders can address diverse challenges, create a supportive work environment, and ultimately foster a more harmonious and productive team.
Ensuring People are in the Right Position
Sometimes people exhibit difficult behaviors simply because they are uncomfortable with their current responsibilities. This issue occurs more often than you might think. A crucial aspect of managing difficult people is ensuring they are in the right position within the team. Some ways to accomplish this include:
Assessing individual strengths, weaknesses, and preferences
Evaluating current roles and responsibilities
Identifying opportunities for growth and development
Considering team dynamics and potential adjustments
Discussing career aspirations and goals with team members
By ensuring everyone is in the right role, a leader can promote job satisfaction and avoid potential conflicts.
Communicate Openly and Actively Listen
Strong communication is essential for addressing difficult behaviors. Leaders can enhance communication with challenging team members by:
Being transparent about expectations and goals
Encouraging open dialogue and feedback
Scheduling regular check-ins or one-on-one meetings
Fostering an environment of trust and respect
By implementing these communication strategies, leaders can help uncover and address the underlying issues causing difficult behavior.
Building Bridges and Finding Common Ground
Establishing connections with difficult individuals can help leaders find common ground, fostering understanding and collaboration. Some suggestions to achieve this are coming from my direct experience:
Focus on shared goals and interests
Encourage teamwork and group problem-solving
Provide opportunities for team-building exercises
Recognize and celebrate individual and team achievements
Address conflicts directly and fairly
By implementing these strategies, a leader can create a more cohesive and productive team.
🥊 Handling the Conflict
Despite putting in considerable effort to avoid conflicts with a difficult person, there may come a time when conflict arises. What should you do now? There's no one-size-fits-all answer, as it depends on various factors, such as your desired outcome, the person you're dealing with, your leadership styles, and more.
One well known tool that I've found valuable in my career is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). While this tool is primarily used to determine the type of approach you want to adopt based on the outcome you aim to achieve during conflict resolution, I also use it proactively to imagine how each member of my team might react to a conflict.
The idea behind TKI is to measure five different conflict-handling styles, each with its unique set of characteristics.
These styles include:
Competing: assertive and uncooperative
Accommodating: unassertive and cooperative
Avoiding: unassertive and uncooperative
Collaborating: assertive and cooperative
Compromising: intermediate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness
Understanding these styles not only helps leaders adopt an approach to conflicts, allowing for tailored strategies to mitigate issues but, if used proactively, it also contributes to avoiding these conflicts.
Avoiding Defensiveness as a Leader
As a leader, it is crucial to avoid becoming defensive when dealing with a conflict.
Some ways to accomplish this include:
Practicing self-awareness and recognizing one's triggers
Listening objectively to feedback or criticism
Separating the issue from one's identity or role
Seeking alternative perspectives and considering different viewpoints
Reflecting on the situation and identifying opportunities for growth
By remaining open and non-defensive, a leader can promote a positive atmosphere and facilitate constructive discussions that could lead to resolving the conflict.
🔚 Recognizing When It's Time to Move On
Despite a leader's best efforts, there may be times when all strategies for managing difficult people and resolving conflicts prove ineffective. In such cases, it's essential to recognize when it's time to move on, to prevent toxic individuals from negatively affecting the entire team.
Some signs that it's time to consider this option include:
Persistent negative impact on team morale and productivity
Exhaustion of all possible strategies to address the issue
Strained relationships that seem beyond repair
Consistently underperforming individuals or escalating conflicts
Concerns about the long-term viability of the team with the difficult individual
Firing someone, even if you have tried everything to avoid this, remains probably one of the toughest jobs for a manager. However, by recognizing when it's time to move on, a leader can protect their team's well-being and ensure a healthier work environment.
In conclusion, the ability to deal with difficult people is a crucial skill for any leader or manager who aims to maintain a healthy and productive team. Successfully managing difficult people involves multiple steps:
🔎 Being proactive and recognizing difficult people
👷🏻♂️ Working with these individuals and addressing their challenges
🥊 Being prepared to deal with conflicts
🔚 Knowing when it's time to move on
Developing these skills not only contributes to a positive work environment but also enhances a manager's ability to lead diverse teams and achieve organizational goals.
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✌️ That’s all folks
That's all for today! As always, I would love to hear from my readers (and if you've made it this far, you're definitely one of the bravest). Please don't hesitate to connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter and send a message. I always respond to everyone!