How to Deal with Difficult Personalities at Work

This blog post is part of our Truity at Work series for those who are new to people management. In these posts, we’re creating useful content for managers and teams alike, helping you to understand personality, improve communication, and navigate conflict and change with ease. For an overview of the series, start with our introductory post here.

Unfortunately, we never quite know when we’ll encounter someone we find difficult. It might be a new colleague or someone on a new project team. It might even be someone already on our own team. But either way, managing someone who is consciously or unconsciously ‘difficult’ can be one of the most challenging situations to deal with. The people who can manage difficult people well are some of the most successful in business.

In this article, we are going to talk about the types of difficult personalities you might come across in the workplace, how to manage your own reactions and some tips for dealing with difficult personalities. 

Six types of difficult personalities

There is no one personality type that's difficult. We might find we don’t gel with a specific type, like an ISFJ or an ENTP, but that’s not the same as dealing with a difficult personality. 

A “difficult personality” is someone who behaves in a way that we find uncomfortable, overwhelming and triggering. It’s a bit of a two-way street. The behavior itself may be less-than ideal, but it becomes ‘difficult’ when we don’t feel able to respond as openly or as easily as we would like. 

Here are six examples of difficult personalities. Think about those you encounter in the workplace, and which might describe your own behavior. 

1. The Immovable Force

The Immovable Force is pushy and abrupt. They can attack people to force them out of their way.  

2. The Sniper

The Sniper uses sarcasm and snide comments to embarrass people, taking jokes and humor too far. 

3. The Critic

The Critic is quick to criticize but doesn't cope with being contradicted.  

4. The Always Agreeable

The Always Agreeable wants to please everyone and becomes so over committed that they struggle to please anyone.

5. The Postponer

The Postponer is indecisive, putting off making decisions to avoid upsetting anyone.

6. The Complainer

The Complainer believes someone else should fix the problem, and avoids talking about solutions.

Flipping the story

“No one is the villain of their own story. We are always the hero.”

When we clash with someone, we start to tell ourselves a story. Stories help us make sense of what’s happened, often filling the gaps with assumptions instead of reality. And in those stories, we always play the hero. We never cast ourselves as the villain. The victim maybe, but never the villain. 

If you always play the hero in your story, then your difficult person must also be the hero in theirs. The person who you are vilifying in your head is somehow the hero in their story. Which, when we are deep into our hero’s journey, can be hard to swallow. 

So if you are the villain in their story, and they are the villain in your story, how do you move forward?

Every hero has a mission. A goal. A desire to come back from their long journey and share their story of success. 

With that in mind, we can flip our story by acknowledging the positive intent of our villain. When we imagine how they might be the hero in their story, we make more space within us to navigate the situation.  Here are some examples of the positive motivations behind the difficult personalities: 

“I want to get the project finished”

“I want my ideas or contribution to be recognized”

“I want get along with others”

“I want to avoid making mistakes”

Each of these are legitimate motivations. We all want to finish projects on time, without mistakes, while working well with others and being recognized for our efforts. But sometimes we can get too attached to one of these needs, and it doesn't get expressed in a healthy way. 

If you saw yourself in any of the difficult personalities above, which of these positive intentions match your internal hero’s journey? 

Factor in your feelings 

Difficult people often trigger our flight-or-fight response. Instead of speaking up and handling the situation easily, we might stay silent or withdraw from the situation. Or, we might go on the offensive, attacking someone or trying to take control. 

However we react, it often leads to regret. We regret that we didn’t speak up, or we regret what we said. Ideally, we are able to manage our own emotional reactivity. That doesn't mean we dismiss or suppress our feelings, but we use them to recognize the situation is not okay, and respond without resorting to silence or attacking.

Let’s give it a go.

Think of a recent run-in with a difficult person. 

  • Did you respond by staying silent or attacking?
  • What triggered your strong emotional situation? (Go beneath the ‘he said/she said’ surface.)
  • What is the hero/villain story you are telling yourself?
  • How can you expand your story by looking at the role you are playing, how your villain might be a decent person, and what you want for yourself and for the relationship?

After going through that process, what are you feeling? How is that different from before you started?

Finally, what do you want to commit yourself to doing the next time you talk to this person or encounter a similar situation? How can you start to shift your default patterns? If you normally withdraw or stay silent, you might commit to saying the first thing that comes to mind instead of analyzing it first. If you usually go on the attack, you might commit to listening for a minute longer than usual. 

Take the time to review your responses to these situations. Having a deeper understanding of your reactions will help you recognize and manage your reactivity in the future. And the more you prepare for difficult situations, the less regret you’ll feel.

Things to try

Once you feel more contained in your emotional space, it will be easier to start changing how you respond in each situation. Here are some strategies to try:

  • State your opinions clearly and directly
  • Maintain eye contact
  • Ask about intention and relevancy
  • Call out poor behavior 
  • Discuss an issue in private or public, whichever feels safer for you and them
  • Let them know you value their opinion
  • Listen for the main points, then summarize
  • State which parts you agree with by saying “I agree…”
  • Instead of disagreeing, say “In addition, I observed that…” or “I see things differently...”
  • Create clarity by discussing what each person wants from the conversation 

Bad behavior is never acceptable

While dealing with difficult people is an opportunity to develop our skills around conflict resolution and influencing people, there is always a line. There are behaviors that are never acceptable at work. These include bullying, harassment, coercion, discrimination, or overly aggressive or abusive behaviour. 

It’s important to know the difference and know when to ask for help, either from within your organization or from outside of it.

What’s next?

Make a list of the difficult people in your life, and work through the steps outlined above. If you want to go deeper, you might want to read Dealing with People You Can’t Stand by Dr Rick Brinkman or Coping with Difficult People by Dr Robert Bramson. Or, speak with a coach or counselor to get some support.  

As this model is based on DISC, you can learn more about your interaction style, and the style of others, by taking our DISC assessment. The go-to tool of large organizations, our DISC test can help you clarify your workplace personality and adapt your own style to get along better with others.

Samantha Mackay

Samantha is the Lead Trainer at Truity and will shortly be a certified Enneagram Coach. She believes our personality is the key to navigating life's strangest hurdles. Despite her best efforts Samantha is an ENTP and Enneagram 7, who is always surrounded by a pile of books, a steaming cup of tea and a block of her favourite chocolate. Samantha is currently studying with Beatrice Chestnut and Uranio Paes of CP Enneagram Academy undertaking their Professional Enneagram Certification. Currently located in Auckland, New Zealand. Find her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/samanthamackay/. Check out her course "Unlocking the Power of Your Personality" at www.truity.com/training

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