Working with unreasonable and difficult people

Julie Rowe
Working with unreasonable and difficult people

“Do you have someone at work who consistently triggers you? Doesn’t listen? Takes credit for work you’ve done? Wastes your time with trivial issues? Acts like a know-it-all? Can only talk about himself? Constantly criticises?”

Those were questions asked by President and CEO of The Energy Project Tony Schwartz in an article for Harvard Business Review where he looked at the secret to dealing with difficult people.

“Our core emotional need is to feel valued and valuable,” Tony wrote. “When we don’t, it’s deeply unsettling, a challenge to our sense of equilibrium, security, and well-being. At the most primal level, it can feel like a threat to our very survival.”

Unfortunately, there’s likely many people in the workforce that can relate. Take Mary, for instance.


A cautionary tale on the perils of ‘reply all’

Mary knew the pitfalls of accidentally hitting the “reply all” button on emails but when she responded to a memo from her boss about a change in company policy, she fully intended for everyone on the recipient list to see her response.

What she wasn’t prepared for was the wrath that came from her boss afterwards.

Mary, a mid-level manager in a big company, wanted further clarification on her boss’s wording. She thought she would be doing him and her colleagues a favour by clearing things up.

He didn’t see it the same way. He took her into his office and berated her for making him look stupid and accused her of being passive-aggressive.

“Looking back I can see how he felt a bit stupid,” Mary explains. “But his response was so over the top.”

SEE ALSO: Top 10 bad habits holding you back at work


Everyone can be difficult

Loretta Brown3

Loretta Brown

Leadership expert and executive coach Loretta Brown says everyone in an organisation has the potential to display difficult behaviours at times.

“The key is to work out what is abrasive behaviour and what is full-blown bullying,” she says, adding that it’s helpful to label the behaviour as difficult rather than the person.Leadership expert and executive coach Loretta Brown says everyone in an organisation has the potential to display difficult behaviours at times.

Communicating clearly is also crucial. An important leadership attribute is to be able to see things from the other person’s point of view, says Loretta, a director at the New Zealand Coaching and Mentoring Centre.

A helpful “backdoor” into addressing the issue is to talk about perception, using phrases like “there is a perception that XYZ behaviour is taking place, how can we fix this perception?”

If respect is not being shown then the difficult behaviour enters into the bullying sphere and should be referred to someone skilled in addressing these issues, like an HR manager.

“If an employee has nowhere else to turn and feels like they are not being respected then they should look to escalate it,” says Loretta. “They should feel empowered to say that this is not an acceptable environment.”

But she says some forms of bullying can be hard to identify.

“Sometimes behaviour is almost bullying but not quite. It can be hard to nail it. Organisations are getting better at addressing it.”

Pull out quote Loretta Brow

Good behaviour starts from the top

Loretta says many difficult behaviours can be systemic and while there are some very skilled managers, some need to become better skilled at taking on challenging behaviours.

“Organisations move mountains around difficult people rather than tackling personal behaviours, doing ludicrous redesigns around difficult people,” says Loretta.

“Often difficult people are framed up as having interpersonal difficulties, when it’s actually the wider structure of an organisation. Some organisations normalise bad behaviours.

“Good behaviour starts from the top and bad behaviour can filter all the way down. There’s a huge responsibility on executive teams to create an affirming culture.

“It’s true what they say, people leave their managers rather than an organisation.”

SEE ALSO: Top 10 bad habits holding you back at work

Handling unreasonable & difficult people

Professor Preston Ni posted an article on Psychology Today called Ten Keys to Handling Unreasonable & Difficult People. Here is a summary of his points.


Keep Your Cool

The first rule in the face of an unreasonable person is to maintain your composure; the less reactive you are, the more you can use your better judgment to handle the situation.


"Fly Like an Eagle"

Some people in our lives are simply not worth tussling with. As the saying goes: “You can’t fly like an eagle if you hang out with turkeys!”


Shift from Being Reactive to Proactive 

When you feel offended by someone’s words or deeds, come up with multiple ways of viewing the situation before reacting.


Pick Your Battles

Not all difficult individuals we face require direct confrontation about their behaviour. 


Separate the Person From the Issue 

An effective communicator knows how to separate the person from the issue, and be soft on the person and firm on the issue.


Put the Spotlight on Them

By putting the difficult person in the spotlight, you can help neutralise her or his undue influence over you.  


Use Appropriate Humour

When appropriately used, humour can shine light on the truth, disarm difficult behaviour, and show that you have superior composure. 


Change from Following to Leading 

In healthy communication, two people would take turns leading and following.


Confront Bullies (Safely)

When their victims begin to show backbone and stand up for their rights, the bully will often back down. This is true in schoolyards, as well as in domestic and office environments.


Set Consequence

Effectively articulated, consequence gives pause to the challenging individual, and compels her or him to shift from obstruction to cooperation.


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