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How to Manage Difficult Personalities at Work

Difficult personalities at work can cause some sort of conflict, frustration and demotivation. Learn how to manage them in this article!


Christine Chartrand

VP Consulting Services

Monday, August 25, 2014


What are considered difficult employees to you? Are they those who don’t listen, show up late, procrastinate, argue every single decision made?

Although what is considered “difficult” may differ from one person to another, there are certain personality traits that can concoct a recipe for problematic behavior in the workplace.

Dealing with difficult personalities at work is something everyone can relate to but perhaps one of the hardest things to overcome. So let’s get the ball rolling: how do you manage a difficult personality at work?

What do difficult personalities at work look like

Difficult personalities come in all shapes and sizes. They can be quite indirect, non-verbal, or appear as though everything is fine, such as a passive-aggressive employee, or very “in-your-face”, attacking and explicit.

Many would be surprised to know that it isn’t necessarily the less productive people that have difficult personalities. Very successful workers are also susceptible to personality traits that cause barriers, conflicts and a lack of synergy within an organization.

A lot of employees may prove to be difficult from time to time due to stress at work or at home, therefore you must determine if it is contextual or if it is a recurring issue, therefore deep-seeded in their personality.

To better manage difficult personalities at work, you must obtain a bigger picture by identifying:

  • what types of personality traits you feel are more problematic to work
  • the environment in which you are working in (context, tasks, organizational culture)
  • your own personality traits and natural reflexes

The obvious aggressor

Chances are, difficult personalities at work cause some sort of conflict, frustration, demotivation and/or confusion among peers. Those who disrupt by their unfailing inclination to argue anything and everything, talk back or portray an egocentric attitude may come to mind. Their lack of a filter and aggressive behavior are what typically make others around them feel threatened.

With these types of difficult personalities, you must look beyond what’s wrong (as it is quite obvious) and look for a solution. Sometimes, it’s as simple as asking them for their opinion on something (because you know very well you’re going to get it anyways, but this way they may feel more involved and flattered that you asked, which in return can soften their responses).

Even if you decide not to apply their opinions or ideas, at least you allowed them to verbalize their point of view in a more controlled setting. It won’t change their core personality, but it may help to tame it.

Difficult personalities at work are not always in-your-face

But what about the less obvious types? Those who never speak up, let emotions escalate and play the victim in every situation. They may be equally as difficult to manage because their fellow peers are stuck in a guessing game of how this person is feeling, only to find out tenfold at a later and less appropriate time. Different from the “in-your-face” problematic personalities, you will need to start by uncovering what’s wrong first, and then find a solution.

This is why regular follow-ups and feedback sessions are important not only to maintain a smooth and steady flow but to give colleagues the chance to express themselves bit by bit. If you are working with people who have a very difficult time expressing or confronting certain issues, you will need to pay close attention to the non-verbals, such as difficulty making eye contact or rolling their eyes when faced with comments, closed body language, appearing tense, facial expressions, etc…

Creating awareness

Whether you are dealing with upfront or passive-aggressive behaviors, creating a sense of awareness is imperative. The people with difficult personalities should be conscious of their own natural reflexes and how they may affect others, just as much as you should be aware of how your personality may be influenced by others.

Going back to basics, using “I” statements to open the conversation is a good way to prevent the other party from being defensive and it allows you to express how you’re feeling without putting any blame. “I feel that I can’t get my point across when I am interrupted” can be a lot more effective than “you are disruptive”.

I know what you’re thinking: a simple “I” statement won’t do any good with irrational, narcissistic employees. This may be true, but it won’t make matters worse. Think of it as an icebreaker, not a solution.

As previously mentioned, awareness is key, and using a psychometric test can objectively provide you with personality differences (and similarities) that may be at the root of your problems.

Difficult personalities at work: a force of habit

Some people may repeat difficult behaviors out of habit or because it has proven effective for them in the past. They may be rigid and resistant to change (which can be a difficult personality in itself), or perhaps no one has ever confronted them about their behavior in the past, and they remain unaware that they are creating more bad than good.

Don’t turn your cheek, but instead help them understand the consequences of their actions and provide alternative reactions to situations by leading by example, role-playing and helping them learn to detect signs in their environment that may trigger a problematic behavior.

Wider scope

We also need to adopt a broader look on difficult personalities at work. Separating the person from the problem, understanding that people typically behave the way they do because of who they are and not because of you, that stress and demotivation can cause someone to be more difficult to manage than usual, and trying your very best to be proactive instead of reactive.

To effectively manage a difficult personality at work, you must learn the natural reflexes of your employees, understand the context, and define what you categorize as “difficult” first. Do not only focus on the negative, but work towards finding a solution. Make sure to conduct systematic monitoring to prevent certain behaviors from worsening, and proactively open the conversation with these employees.

Find out the types of personalities of your employees with Atman’s psychometric test and become proactive about handling difficult personalities at work!

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