By Elisabeth Goodman, 31st March, 2015
How to work with difficult people is a subject that many managers struggle with
How to work with “difficult” people is one of the topics Janet Burton and I explore in RiverRhee Consulting’s 3-day Introduction to Management course , and in our tailored in-house supervisor and line manager courses. I also previously referred to this subject in one of our newsletters on the subject of creating exceptional managers.
How to work with “difficult” people is one of the most popular aspects of our courses, being one that many new and even more established managers can find quite challenging. I wonder whether it’s because the whole area of managing interpersonal relationships, dealing with conflict, emotional awareness and intelligence is something that is largely neglected in our educational system. We are so focused on academic achievement, that this essential aspect of work and indeed home life can be under-developed, unless other people in our lives have helped us to learn about it, or we have taken the initiative to explore it ourselves.
Difficult people may just be being different – we should take time to understand them
As I wrote in the newsletter, difficult people are not necessarily being difficult, but just different! Our different personalities, perspectives on, and beliefs in life will lead us to approach our work differently, communicate differently and generally act differently. At any moment in time, there will also be other circumstances happening in our lives that might be influencing how we think, feel and behave.
When faced with what seems to be a difficult situation or person, we would do well to step back and reflect on why they seem to be difficult, and to also step forward into the other person’s shoes. It may indeed be some aspect of our own behaviour that is creating or at least contributing to the situation.
We all make assumptions and try to mind read. One of the most obvious solutions, but also the one a lot of people will avoid, is to actually have an open conversation with the person concerned, to understand their perspective as well as communicate our own. Several of the managers we’ve worked with have dared to have those conversations as a result of what they’ve learnt on our courses and have been greatly relieved by the outcome.
Other strategies and tools to help us understand “difficult” people
There are various other strategies at our disposal, such as active listening, coaching and assertiveness that can help us to better understand what is leading to people being “difficult” as well as helping us to influence any associated behaviours and situations in a positive and constructive way.
We use various psychometric tools in our training ranging from Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles, to NLP representational (or communication) styles, Belbin’s Team Roles and MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator). These can be very illuminating in terms of understanding our different perspectives and approaches to life and work.
I’m in the process of reading “Working Together”, a book about transactional analysis (TA) in the workplace. TA, and the “OK corral” originated with Eric Berne in the 1970s. It’s about understanding our beliefs about ourselves and how we believe others view us – often something we have inherited from childhood – and how that influences our behaviour and interaction with others. It can lead to individuals being generally passive or aggressive rather than assertive in their behaviour, or to responding passively or aggressively in certain situations.
In an organisational setting, the nature of the “OK” dynamic between individuals can influence the dynamics within teams and make a difference between a dysfunctional team and one that thrives on open discussion and attains high performance. The open and positive behaviour of senior and middle managers can make a difference between engaged and ‘empowered’ individuals in what Wickens (1995) calls an “ascendant” organisation, and one where people are alienated, acting in an anarchic way, or where there is total apathy.
In conclusion – it’s worth spending the time to understand people, to create a more positive working relationship
As one of my own exceptional managers once told me, the work of a manager can be as much as 80% about people, and only 20% about tasks. If people are being “difficult” we should take the time to understand why they appear to be so. The root cause may be something that we can do something about or otherwise influence.
As Mountain and Davidson point out: people working together don’t have to like each other to still be able to work effectively together. In my own experience, better understanding can lead to something that is more akin to liking (if that was not there already), and certainly to a more positive working relationship.
 Mountain, A. and Davidson, C. (2015) Working Together. Organizational Transactional Analysis and Business Performance. Farnham, England, Gower
 Eric Berne’s 4-box matrix matches the various combinations of “I am OK”, “I am not OK” and “You are OK”, “You are not OK”. The “healthy position” being “I am OK, You are OK”.
 Wickens, P. (1995). The Ascendant Organization. Basingstoke, England, MacMillan Business
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that helps business teams and their managers to enhance their effectiveness for greater productivity and improved team morale. (We use coaching, training, mentoring and consulting in our work with our clients.)
Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting just over 5 years ago, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.
Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) where she leads the Capabilities & Methods pillar for the Enabling Change SIG.