How a leader Deal with Difficult People ?


Over the holidays, a friend (I’ll call her Mary) who works in retail took me aside to vent about one of her colleagues. This individual (let’s call him Jim) managed to press every imaginable button on Mary’s personal control panel.

First of all, he was very talented and he knew it. Jim ranked among the top team managers in her firm. His mastery of particular product lines was unassailable. Everyone looked up to him for his expertise.

Therein was part of the problem. Jim could not tolerate constructive feedback. He was always right, no matter what evidence was presented to the contrary. His insecurity drove him to dominate discussions and turn meetings into battlegrounds. He used his authority over his team to drive without mercy for perfection.

Jim used the office rumor mill to sabotage people who disagreed with him. No matter how I coached her, I could not persuade Mary to come up with an effective strategy for dealing with Jim.

How can you better deal with people who drive you crazy? How can you manage these relationships more effectively so that you don’t get drawn into a negative vortex that drains energy, to say nothing of precious time, from everyone involved?

Not one of the following steps is easy to put into practice. There are no quick solutions that will permanently solve these interpersonal problems.

However, these steps might make life at work more bearable, even when you must work closely with a “difficult” person.

How a leader Deal with Difficult People
FIGURE : 6 Hints for Dealing with Difficult People.

The Only Thing You Can Control Is Your Own Reaction to This Person

The person who you define as being “difficult” to work with is only difficult because of your judgment. Leave aside, for the moment, that most people have a similar reaction to this person. As in any relationship, the only thing you can really control is your own reaction. You can choose other reactions.

For example, when Jim yet again derails a meeting by launching into a passionate defense of his own opinion, Mary could choose to either grind her teeth and say to herself: “Oh no, there he goes again, Mr. know-it-all!” Or she could openly address Jim: “You clearly have very strong feelings about your position in this discussion. Can you tell me more about this issue and its importance to you?” Hear him out.

Let him state his case. People you define as being “difficult” to deal with are victims of our own judgment. As Stephen Covey (management consultant and author) reminded us, seek first to understand others before you demand to be understood. Jim might have some very good reasons behind his strong opinions—or not. But, unless you ask, you will never find out.

Do Not Take Their Perceived Offensiveness Personally. It’s Not about You

People who press all our buttons at work have not singled us out for special punishment. What you are seeing is merely the face, or mask, they present to the world. They have learned how to use that mask long before they met you. This is their normal state, irritating though it may be.

The mask you see at work is their adaptive behavior; perhaps a maladaptation due to stress or the failure to resolve other key needs, such as self-esteem.

So, do not take their perceived offensiveness personally. Their behavior may have nothing to do with you or who you are. You just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Accept the Fact That People You Define as “Difficult” Are Likely to Require High Maintenance

This means that interactions may take more time than seems justified by the circumstances at hand. Mary needs to know and plan for the fact that dealing with Jim will require more of her time and effort than with others.

Enter All Interactions with People Who You Define as Being “Difficult” Fully Grounded and Clear about Your Own Boundaries

Working with “difficult” people is really an opportunity to work on yourself. Know what is yours and what is theirs. For example, Mary needs to be clear on the boundaries she needs to have in place to cope with Jim’s dominating behavior.

Being clear about boundaries can allow her to give feedback in a compassionate way that might help create positive change.

Mary told me about another character, this time an employee of hers, who was hypersensitive about his own perceived rights. This guy was always watching Mary to see when she made mistakes or when her behavior could be misinterpreted as being abusive or unfair. I suggested that she call him on this game and invite him to see if the two of them could get out of this negative pattern and play a more positive game.

Maladaptive Behavior Could Stem from Prior Experience in Not Having Key Needs Met. Everyone Needs Respect and Feelings of Self-Worth

Remember that Abraham Maslow’s (American psychologist) hierarchy of needs (physiological, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization) applies to all of us, including Jim.

His maladaptive behavior might come from his prior experience in not having key needs met. While none of us should attempt to play the role of amateur psychotherapist, Mary might have better luck with Jim by helping him meet some of his needs rather than getting locked into power confrontations.

What might this mean at work? I asked Mary if she could recall complimenting Jim on his performance. Has she ever caught him doing something right and let him know how much she appreciated his efforts?

Her answer was: “No. I thought he already had an inflated opinion of himself.” He certainly displays an inflated self-opinion to the world. What about under the mask? Has anyone ever bothered to ask?

People Who Press Buttons Do So Because They Have Learned They Will Get a Predictable Reaction. Instead, Start a Different, More Positive Conversation

You can choose not to react. Instead, try to understand. Start a dialogue with questions such as these:

  • “You have a lot of expertise here. Can you tell me more about your reasoning on this issue?” Build trust and self-esteem.
  • “This is what I understand from what you are saying.” (Then paraphrase and ask for clarification.) Build trust and understanding.
  • “How do you think your reaction is affecting me/us right now?” Build insight.
  • “What would you like to have happen in this situation?” Build trust.
  • “All of us are going to eventually agree on a decision. What do you think would help us get there?” Encourage responsibility.
  • “If you could change only two things about this discussion, what would they be?” Encourage innovation.
  • “We are going to have conversations like this often. How could we conduct these discussions in a more effective way in the future?” Encourage ownership.

Easier said than done? Of course. But, if we are patient enough to keep our own ego needs under control when dealing with a “difficult person,” we can learn a lot about them, to say nothing of learning a lot about ourselves at the same time.


  • DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. It’s not about you.
  • PLAN TO SPEND MORE TIME and energy with people you
    define as difficult.
  • KNOW where you stand.
  • GENUINELY BUILD their self-worth.
  • DON’T LET YOUR BUTTONS get pushed. Start a more positive conversation.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here