How to Handle Difficult People At Work

You and I both know that you have to know how to handle difficult people - it is personal and team suicide if you can't do it well.

Yet we all try to avoid those very tricky conversations ... good grief I teach this stuff and I still get butterflies in my tummy whenever I've got to hold someone to a new level.

So, before jumping into this article, can I suggest you might first want to read the previous article on what happens when you don't deal with difficult employees quickly and effectively.

good for you, good for allIt is good for everyone when you learn how to
handle difficult people quickly and with grace

As you know from the first article in this series, the very first step in handling difficult people starts with you. And, now we are going to focus on being clear about how you show up as a leader. So let's start there ...


How To Handle Difficult People Tip One:

Know The Impact You Want To Make

Are you clear about you the impact you want to have as a leader?

I've often found that the leaders who avoid dealing with poor performers are leaders who don't have a clear vision of their impact and purpose as an individual. It is important that you have a clear picture of the type of team and organization you are creating and the results you want to see happen for you, your people and your business.

Write down the type of workplace you want to create. The difference you want to make. Not sure how to get started on this? The Inner Source Leadership workbook may be a good starting point for you.

If you aren't prepared to get clear about your impact, then you probably shouldn't bother reading the rest of the article, because following the steps below, may give you a degree of success, but the minute it gets tough, you'll probably find yourself backing off and thinking it is too much trouble.

That won't do you or anyone else any good. In fact all it will do is drive cynicism sky high and any chance at high performance out the window.

Not committing yourself to a powerful vision of the impact YOU will have as a leader is sure to hold you at the levels of either an average or low-performing leader .... which commits you and your team to low performance and that will eventually have a consequence to you, them and the business.

Staying focused on a powerful vision slides you into the ranks of high performance

Your vision will inspire you to continuously improve at and learn how to handle difficult people ... so they and you can make the dent in the universe you were destined to.


Working With Difficult People Tip Two:

Be Squeaky Clean Yourself!

One reason many people don't like to give feedback, is because they are so very aware of all the times when they didn't meet performance expectations. They are scared that this will be thrown in their face!

Side Note

When I teach my clients how to handle difficult people, one of the important skills we discuss is how to stop those under-performers who twist conversations so that all of the focus is off them. Some difficult people are masters at turning around conversations so you end up talking about your (or someone else's) poor performance, and not their own!

Don't expect to be perfect. But be committed to consistently being at your best and regularly delivering on your promises. If you do that you will breathe easier when you sit down to discuss someone's under-performance.

Be Known for Keeping Your Promises

One of the most damaging lines used in any organization is "Sorry, I didn't get to it something else came up".

If you make an agreement with someone - make sure you deliver. If you say to a team member that you will meet with them at 2pm on Friday, to see how they are going - come hell or high water be there at 2pm Friday -- or give them plenty of notice if you can't.

Your reputation relies on it. People will long remember when you didn't meet your commitments, or weren't true to your word or placed them low on your priority list.

Certainly, it's true that priorities change, but what is not okay, is that people don't talk with you about the shifting priorities.

If a person uses the excuse "Something came up" this is a violation of trust.

Your reputation relies on you being reliable!

The problem isn't necessarily, that the person changed his/her priorities; the problem is that they didn't have the courtesy to tell you.

And, by leaving you out of the loop s/he's created a trust issue. To hold people responsible, you must constantly use the sentence "If something comes up, let me know as soon as you can".

Then, if the person doesn't do that, you must call them on it. 'We had an agreement that ..(whatever was agreed).. When our agreements get broken like this I lose trust/faith in you. What needs to happen, so that we don't face this again'?

You wouldn't be that short in a real conversation - but you get the drift of the intent and content of the conversation.

Okay, so time to take the focus off you (finally I hear you sigh!) and move to the steps to improving people's performance.


How To Handle Difficult People Tip Three:

Identify Each Individual's Performance Level

To make sure you are solving the real issue, the first thing you must do is to identify if you are dealing with a desire/motivation issue or an ability issue.

A motivation issue is one where if you stuck a gun to their head they could do whatever it is you want

An ability issue is where if you stuck a gun to their head, even if they wanted desperately to do what you wanted, they couldn't

Sometimes issues are a mixture of the two

A quick way to identify each individual's performance level is to divide your people into three categories:

  1. High Performers - those who live the values and come with possible solutions to problems
  2. Average Performers - those who mostly live the values, can identify problems, but may not always have the capability to resolve them
  3. Low Performers - those people who don't live the values and either blame others for problems, or ignore the problems

Another, more detailed process is to rate each person against criteria such as this:

  • Technical Competence (capability to do the job)
  • Quality of Work (standard of output)
  • Performance Effectiveness (ability to meet targets and goals)
  • Living The Values (interpersonal skills and personal style)

This "Identifying Performance Levels template can help you to assess each person on each of the above criteria.

The Situational Leadership article also contains a more detailed process for assessing team members performance

Whichever of the methods that you use, you will probably come across people who are technically competent (even a master) at what they do ... but due to their attitude are poison. Don't be tempted to rate them anything other than a low performer. Their attitude will be the undoing of your team - their technical brilliance simply won't stack up against the damage they do along the way to the spirit of your team.

If you have someone who is delivering results but not living your team's values the wisest thing you can do is to 'release them to industry'! (In other words let them go).

You will find other people who have technical competence AND can be an important part of creating a best place to work.


Click here for Tips 4-6 on how to handle difficult people, where we will cover:

  • Tip 4: Don't Just Single Out Poor Performers
  • Tip 5: Be Kind and Be Easy About Awkward
  • Tip 6: Daily Interaction and Regular Sit Down/One-to-One Discussions
  • (Bonus) Tip 7: Recognize & Acknowledge The Right Performance

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