How to Handle

Difficult People at Work

Need to know how to handle difficult people at work? Here are the first 3, of 6, things you need to have in place before you confront them

It is personal and team suicide if you don't  know how to handle difficult people at work.

Unfortunately, we all try to avoid these 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.

In this article, we are going to look at the first three steps you need to consider before you confront a difficult person.

It 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. So we are going to start there and focus on being clear about how you show up as a leader.

Tip 1: Know The Impact You Want To Make

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

Leaders who avoid dealing with poor performers are leaders who don't have a clear vision of their impact and purpose. It is vital that you have a clear picture of the type of team and organization you are creating. 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 My Career, My Choice training 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. All it will do is drive cynicism about you sky-high. It will also throw out the window any chance of your team being high-performing.

Staying Focused on a Powerful Vision
slides you toward the ranks of High-Performance

Your vision will inspire you to improve at and learn how to handle difficult people. 

Get this right and you and them can make the dent in the universe you were destined to.

Not committing yourself to a compelling vision of the impact YOU have as a leader is sure to hold you at the levels of either an average or low-performing leader. 

Tip 2: Be Squeaky Clean Yourself!

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

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

For more on being squeaky clean, read this article on Building Trust

Side Note

how to handle difficult people who twist conversations

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!

The best thing you can do, if a problematic person starts diverting the conversation is to say something like:

"I hear that you are concerned about that (state whatever they've raised). I want to park that discussion for the moment and come back to it at a later date and time. For this meeting, let's focus on ..."

then turn the conversation back to whatever you are raising with them. 


Tip 3: Identify Each Individual's Performance Level

When you think about difficult people, you'll often describe those people who are toxic. They are negative, cynical, poor performers. But sometimes the most difficult people to handle are those individuals, who are living the values, they are pleasant to be around. But they aren't particularly effective. 

It's good to understand exactly what it is about the individual that is making them difficult. This helps ensure you don't go in with a sledgehammer, when in fact, you needed to tackle the problem with a screwdriver!

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

  • 1
    High Performers: Those people who live the values. Who are highly effective in their job, are solutions-focused, and deliver exceptional results (more of those please!)
  • 2
    Average Performers: Those people who mostly live the values. Deliver ok performance. They can identify problems but may not always have the capability to resolve them.
  • 3
    Low Performers: Those people who don't live the values. Who blame others for, or ignore problems. Who regularly miss targets and goals.

A 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 member performance.

Whichever of the methods you use, you will probably come across technically competent people, 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 won't stack up against the damage they do along the way to the spirit of your organization.

If you have someone who is delivering results but not living your team's values ... you have two options.

If you have someone who is living your values, but not delivering results ... you have two options:

Coach up or coach out!

  • Tip 4: Don't Just Single Out Poor Performers
  • Tip 5: Hold Regular, More Formal Coach Up Meetings
  • Tip 6: Recognize and Acknowledge The Right Performance
  • Tip 7: Be Kind, Then Be Easy About Awkward
  • Tip 8: Use your Organization's Performance Systems To Coach Out

Related Articles