5 Steps for Managing Difficult People

Published: Jul 25, 2022
Modified: Apr 08, 2024

From American Management Association

As a manager, you’re expected to remain professional and evaluate team members strictly on their performance. Still, from time to time, you’re bound to struggle with how to manage someone you find “difficult.” Maybe you see him as lazy and unmotivated. Or maybe she strikes you as abrasive and belligerent. Your goal is to address and change that particular unproductive, disruptive, or alienating behavior. But once someone has gotten under your skin, it can be tough to separate the problem behavior from your problematic feelings about the person. If you let your emotions dictate, you’re likely to come across as judgmental, put your team member on the defensive, and end up making matters worse.     

Effectively managing difficult people starts with staying cool, calm, and objective. To help you target the problem, avoid a personal attack, and increase your likelihood of achieving a positive outcome, the experts at American Management Association (AMA) provide a five-step process:     

  1. Describe the person’s behavior to yourself in specific factual or neutral terms. Concentrate on what the person does, not what he or she doesn’t do, and, if possible, note when these behaviors occur. For example, is the person who “does nothing” literally sitting there staring into space? More likely, they’re keeping occupied with talking on the phone to a friend, surfing the web, or playing Wordle. Is that “argumentative” person making statements that challenge your perspective? Takeaway: The people you find difficult are motivated to do something—just not what you want them to do.
  2. Try to evaluate whether others consider this person difficult, or whether the problem seems limited to you. This is a very important step. Once you remove the emotional elements, see how the employee’s behavior plays out with others. Does he get along with team members? If so, does he have a problem only with you? It might not be easy to accept at first, but knowing the “why” of the situation could make all the difference. If the problem is just with you, you might be able to mitigate it by making a minor adjustment to your own behavior.
  3. Dig deep to uncover the source of the difficult behavior. By noting when certain behaviors rear their ugly heads, you may be able to discern triggers. For example, that difficult “do-nothing” team member may be easily distracted and need more structure, benchmarks, and feedback. Unless you discover why the person is being difficult, the situation is nearly impossible to resolve.   
  4. Seek points of agreement. While there are some who thrive on being difficult, most people want to do a good job and get along with others. By keeping this in mind, you’ll have a much better chance at a good resolution. If you talk about what you’ve observed in non-accusatory language, you can often get the other person to see your point of view and work toward a win-win solution.
  5. Discuss possible fixes. Come prepared to offer some possible ways to correct the problem behavior, based on your objective, fact-based evaluation of the situation, before you start a discussion with your employee. What’s even better: Encourage the employee to come up with a workable solution. With that personal investment, they’ll be more likely to commit to change and achieve it.

Being objective doesn’t mean refusing to consider the person behind the problem. There are myriad reasons people act in ways you might find difficult, from a clash in work styles or values to a hardship at home. By making it safe for team members to tell you what’s really going on, and brainstorming a way to resolve their problem with them, you can become an ally in handling the situation. And you just might come to see that they’re not so difficult after all.    

About AMA

American Management Association (AMA) is globally recognized as a leader in professional development. For nearly 100 years, it has helped millions of people bring about positive change in their performance in order to improve results. AMA’s learn-by-doing instructor-led methods, extensive content, and flexible learning formats are proven effective—and constantly evolve to meet the changing needs of individuals and organizations. To learn more, visit www.amanet.org