Contributed Column

The Manager's Corner

Difficult personalities in the workplace

When initially meeting with a client, I will frequently say, “Tell me about the people with whom you work.” The client will often reply, “I work in a team of five people. I get along well with four of them, but have problems with one person who is really difficult.”

Usually I ask for more information, “What is it about that person and the way you two interact that causes you to say s/he is a difficult personality?” The client then describes the individual in minute detail, focusing on behaviors that s/he perceives to be difficult.

I expect you have experienced “difficult personalities” in your workplace. How can you handle those relationships to minimize, if not eliminate, the problem? Clearly, getting along with all kinds of people, including difficult personalities, is a critical professional capability.

When I listen to a client describing a difficult person, here’s what I think to myself:

1. No one wakes up in the morning, gets out of bed, and says, “Today I am going to work with the intention of being a difficult personality.” If someone is difficult, it’s likely to be done unknowingly and unintentionally.

2. If someone does something that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because you don’t know enough about that person and how s/he perceives the world and his/her place in it.

3. How you choose to manage yourself around other people can minimize problems, even with difficult personalities.

4. You typically can’t change someone else’s behavior, but you can change how you manage yourself around other people. This will predictably impact how other people interact with you.

With this in mind, I will often encourage clients to look at themselves and their own behavior, rather than fixating on another’s. Although in the short run this may be less satisfying than vilifying the other, in the long run it’s a better strategy.

That said, there are two particular capabilities that can minimize problems with people you experience as being difficult: the ability to influence and an understanding of temperament.

Influencing (as opposed to the exercise of authority) is the ability to lead others outside your control so they make better decisions affecting you and your work. By influencing, you avoid bumping up against other people and reduce the likelihood of eliciting difficult behavior. Instead, others will be more inclined to adopt your ideas willingly. Skillful influencing encourages collaborative and cooperative behavior.

If you understand your own and others’ temperamental preferences and tailor your behavior accordingly, you will encounter fewer difficult personalities in your work. You might think that others should tailor their behavior to accommodate you. In fact, the most successful — and influential — individuals tailor their own behavior to bring out the best in others and reduce the potential for difficult workplace interactions. They don’t cater to others, but they do consider differences in the way people work, think, communicate, and interact.

Let’s assume you work in a focused, industrious, methodical, and well organized way and that the employee who reports to you is a big-picture, conceptual, innovative, and digressive thinker. You could perceive your colleague as being a difficult personality. Conversely, if you consider your colleague’s behavior, how his/her approach might complement yours and tailor your interactions accordingly, the outcome will be predictably better.

If you think someone is a difficult person, don’t focus on how you might fix or change that person. Instead, focus on understanding the other person rather than on being understood. If you do so, predictably the number of difficult personalities in your professional life — and perhaps personal life, too — will diminish noticeably. Try it. It really works, and it makes life a lot easier and more enjoyable.

Emily Morrow ( of Shelburne and Auckland, New Zealand, provides tailored consulting services to business owners, professional practice firms, executives and HR personnel.

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