Managing Difficult People

“He’s driving me crazy!”

Managers deal with a wide range of personalities. Most people are cooperative and reasonable. However, some employees are very difficult to be around and work with. A human resources manager states, “They’re totally focused on their own agenda and needs. They cause tension and conflicts. Difficult people absorb a lot of a manager’s time and attention.”

Three types of difficult people are:

– The aggressor
– The victim
– The rescuer

You may never “like” these people. But it is important that you understand them and develop techniques to help them be more productive.

The Aggressor

Aggressive people are demanding and loud. They don’t listen and they talk over people. Their attitude is, “I’m right, you’re wrong.” Their view of the world is win/lose, and of course, they must “win.” Some of the words used to describe aggressive people include: “Sherman tank,” “bull in the china shop,” and “bullies.” A participant in one of my seminars commented, “Aggressive people talk down to people. They’re know-it-alls. They make rude comments, followed by biting sarcasm.”

Some of the comments I’ve heard aggressive people make include:

· “If you don’t like it, leave. It’s my way or the highway.”
· “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m right.”
· “Drop whatever you’re doing – I need this completed ASAP.”

When dealing with aggressive people, start by letting them vent. They often are angry and need to blow off steam. Use active listening skills to indicate you’re trying to understand their views. Aggressive people aren’t used to people really listening to them. Most often it’s point, counterpoint, reload, and attack again.

Sometimes it’s hard to get a word in when the aggressor is verbally attacking. Try “clipping.” This technique allows you to get a few words in such as “Yes,” “No,” “I agree,” “No, you’re wrong.” This often causes the attacker to back off and take a breath.

Aggressive people are often tolerated because they do get things done. The problem is that they also cause tension and upset people. In addition, because they dominate the conversation, other people don’t contribute, which results in lost input.

Aggressive people need to realize there is more than one right answer. Their opinions are valid and valued, but other people have equally valid ideas.

The Victim

Harvard researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey describe victims as “BMW” people. They bitch, whine and moan. They blame others for their problems and come across as timid and helpless. Their attitude is, “People don’t understand how bad I have it.” A student in one of my courses said, “Victims are depressing to be around. They feel sorry for themselves and blow problems out of proportion. They waste a lot of time and don’t take any responsibility for making changes.”

Victims like to “blamestorm.” They’re very good at discovering reasons and finding people to “blame” for their performance shortfalls. Their stories and explanations are purposefully incomplete. They leave out the details that indicate their inability to get the job done.

Some of the comments I’ve heard victims make include:

· “Why does this always happen to me?”
· “I can’t get it done. I never have time for myself.”
· “They won’t give me the information I need.”

When dealing with “victims” take the time to listen to their complaints. A middle manager states, “Victims complain so much, no one really takes the time to listen to them. They feel neglected.” Feed back your understanding of what the victim has said. Try to force the victim to prioritize his or her problems. Next, facilitate a discussion to help him/her choose an appropriate course of action to solve the problem.

Victims need to realize they are not helpless. Find ways to help them achieve some short-term wins. A colleague states, “Victims have strong psychological needs for attention and recognition. Recognize them for taking responsibility and achieving success, not for winning.”

The Rescuer

The rescuer is the person who’s always willing to help other people. Their major need is to be liked and appreciated. “I’ll help” are their favorite words. Rescuers are very good at recognizing when other people need help, and they know how to jump in to save the day. A consultant friend remarks, “The rescuer avoids confrontation. They’re ‘yes’ people. They say ‘yes’ without thinking through the implications. Oftentimes they overcommit and their own work doesn’t get done.”

Some of the comments I’ve heard rescuers make include:

· “I hesitated to fire non-performers. I was afraid of ruining someone’s life.”
· “It was my responsibility to take care of people.”
· “I habitually took care of other people’s problems.”
· “I know this is your project, but let me add it to my list to take the burden off of you.”

When dealing with rescuers it’s important to hold them accountable to performing all of their job responsibilities. If they have excess capacity the manager should assign them bigger bricks to carry.


Aggressive people find, and sometimes create victims. Victims are easy prey for the bully. Victims don’t get the job done but always have excuses why it’s not their fault. Rescuers jump in to save the victim. Everyone wins! This cycle can go round and round, each playing his/her role and in effect supporting the behavior of the other two.

You can do several things when dealing with difficult people.

1. Listen to them. Let them know you want to understand their point of view.

2. Make them feel valued and appreciated.

3. Have them read this article. Indicate we all play these roles to some degree. Ask them which role they play most often. Discuss the impact that role has on others.

4. Indicate what you would like to see them do more of and less of.

5. Ask them to commit to making one or two changes.


Dealing with difficult people is a challenge. However it’s possible to help them be more productive and effective in doing their job.

Applying the Concept

Jim Ligotti, Senior Technical Manager, Sikorsky Aircraft

First and foremost, I try to get an understanding of what’s driving the person’s behavior. It’s also important to remain calm and communicate openly with difficult people. Aggressive people are looking to be recognized and rewarded. I work with the person to help him see the fastest way he can achieve his goals. Aggressive people produce negative vibes, which impacts their ability to be successful. Co-workers don’t go the extra mile to help irritating people. I try to help aggressive people make that connection. Less aggression and more cooperation goes a long way.

The issue with victims is that they believe they cannot get the whole task completed, because inevitably something will be outside their control. This makes me think of elephant training. The young elephant is restrained by one leg. While elephants are young and not very strong, they are unable to get free. Over time elephants become conditioned. When they are older and stronger and could get free, they don’t even try. Their attitude is; why try now; it’s never worked before. This is similar to the victim. The key is to retrain them. They have to believe they can control their destiny. Help them develop a new, positive, can-do attitude. Help them plan and achieve short term wins. As they learn and “win,” increase their field of influence.

Rescuers want to help their teammates but often don’t see the negative effects of missed commitments. I try to help these people realize that offering to help and missing their own commitments is worse than not offering at all. Rescuers have to learn to focus first on their own commitments. Sometimes it helps to show rescuers how to prioritize and manage their time effectively.

Dealing with difficult people is an investment in time. These people are executing “learned” behaviors. I coach and mentor them on more effective ways to reach their goals. It takes time to build trust. However, when people truly believe you’re trying to help them succeed, they listen and respond.

William H. Denney, Ph.D., Quality Consultant

Hold your ground. Don’t change your position out of intimidation.
Interrupt by saying their name until they stop to listen.
Go back and clarify their first point. Slows them down and shows you are listening.
Only address the key issue and don’t get tangled up in miscellaneous stuff.
Don’t piss them off and embarrass them. Give them a way out. Seek a win-win if possible.
If you are in the right position, don’t be afraid to fire an aggressor that is damaging teamwork. Regardless of technical skill and or hard work, aggressors can demoralize and destroy a company.

If the aggressor is your boss then that’s another story. You have to figure out if he/she is a detail person or a big picture person and give them what they are most comfortable with. But that’s another story.

Listen and empathize.
Ask for specifics that you can analyze and comment on, or correct wrong perceptions.
Focus on solutions and the future, not the past.
If necessary, draw a line in the sand and tell them that talking about complaints without solutions is unproductive and time wasting.
Don’t be afraid to tell them they are undermining company success by affecting the morale of others.
Offer to help them find another job.

The rescuer is more of a “know-it-all.”
Be prepared for your discussions with this person. They think they know more than you and others.
Be appreciative, respectful and sincere about their contribution.
Take an indirect approach to help them see your point to avoid putting them on the defensive.
Use soft words — maybe, perhaps, we, us, etc.
Help them understand that there is time for others to have a learning curve on what needs to be done.
Help them understand that it is in the company’s interest to have more knowledge in the pipe line.
Use them as a coach to others if possible.
If you are in a position to do so, get them into team training. Even facilitator training will enlighten their views and show them how to work with others.

Advice on dealing with difficult people
Everyone means well. Listen and understand before you try to give your opinion or position.
Try to determine what circumstance in the past has molded their position.
Repeat without agreeing so they know you understand their concerns.
Get their input on how to improve the situation. Pass it along or act on it if possible.
Strive for a win-win situation. There is often a middle ground.
If nothing works, don’t let them undermine morale. Offer to help them find another job.