Dealing with Difficult Personalities

Leadership is one of those jobs that no matter how good the pay, it is never enough for the amount of personality issues you deal with. Well this morning as I had the honor of dealing with a difficult personality, I managed to garner a few nuggets of wisdom.


Remember they have a point

While this nugget is hard to swallow when the difficult personality has decided to engage in spiteful, project harming behavior it is still a point worth considering. There is something that they are mad or offended about and as a leader your job is to wade through the snide remarks and childish behavior to find out what it is. At the end of the day a difficult person feels like they are not being heard and we know ignoring them doesn’t help, so why not try listening?

There was a reason you hired them

When you are having trouble getting to the bottom of the issue, remember there is a reason that you hired them.  They brought something special and meaningful to your team, so you made an investment in this person. You owe it to your company and your staff to try to work it out. Think of it like a dysfunctional marriage, you know you partnered with this person for a reason and it’s a choice to let any partnership dissolve.

They are as frustrated as you

The truth is that behind every difficult person is someone who doesn’t understand why you don’t understand what the problem is. This is a basic communication issue and as we rise to positions of leadership, often we stop trying to understand the other point of view.  Think about when you are not happy with a service, how they handle the complaint can become more important than the complaint. The same premise applies to a difficult personality. What may have started out as a small annoyance has now gone nuclear (as my kids say), because you dismissed it.

Relationships change

A company in forward momentum pushes their employees to learn and grow, what we forget is that growth brings challenges. You can’t encourage someone to fly and then clip their wings. You have to find that elusive balance between freedom and company constraint and some bosses are better at it than others. Sometimes a difficult personality has simply outgrown their role and as leader, your job is to find the next phase of their position where they can continue to grow. I’m not saying reward bad behavior, but situations are what we create and if you want something different you have to make it.


Difficult people are a nightmare for many leaders but when you take the emotion out of it and see just the situation, your perspective becomes a useful tool. People are people and that never changes, but how you handle situations makes all the difference.

Leona Charles

Leona Charles began SPC Business Consulting Ltd in 2007 to help businesses of all sizes get the most out of their performance. As a Six Sigma Black Belt, she brings a fresh and unique approach to Operations Consulting drawing on her 10 years of combined experience in law enforcement, government contracting, property management, customer service, non profit industry, and education.

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  1. Nicoel Rose says

    As an employment lawyers for 14 years and working both in private practice and as counsel in-house, the importance of a proactive rather than reactive approach may seem simple but cannot be underestimated.

    A work relationship is not dissimilar to any other type. It needs nurturing and respecting.

    Taking those consistent steps to ensure your employees are kept motivated and are in-line with your thinking is, in my experience,the most important part of managing a successful relationship.

    Finding and planning a place for them to grow in your company is critical, as hopefully our employees will want to continue to develop, and develop in, our businesses. Regular face-to-face one-to-one meetings and a development plan can turn a potential frustrated member of staff into a passionate innovator who accepts your leadership.

  2. says

    Thanks for the comment Nicoel! You point out some very useful observations, isn’t it amazing how a good communication style can deflect all types of complications?

  3. says

    THANK YOU! Thank you, thank you, for not throwing out the baby with the bath water. Every time I see a “difficult personality” article I dread reading them because they’re essentially always written from the slant of somebody who only sees what makes them uncomfortable and therefore judges and misjudges, typically assigning poor performance, substance abuse (!?? Huh!) and the overwhelming desire to destroy, to the “difficult” person without ever addressing the myriad reasons WHY we’re occasionally difficult. *Perceived* as difficult (which perception, IMHO, is always perpetuated by the coworkers who cause the problems that lead to the “difficult” behavior). This article (Ill copy link) is also great because its the FIRST one I’ve read that describes the impossible leaders and others I work with and how to deal with them, instead of only describing my reactions and how I’M the problem. Link: Seriously, THANK YOU! :)

  4. Susan Gunelius says

    Andrea, Thank you for sharing the link. That article is filled with useful information that can really help people have better working relationships and business results by learning to adapt to each other’s personalities rather than fighting against them (or trying to change them).

  5. says

    Hi Andrea,

    Thank you for the reply! I am so glad that the article has sparked some discussion. Difficult people are often labeled difficult because there is a breakdown in communication somewhere and it is easier to label that person difficult that to actually sit down and reflect on how you are contributing to the situation. Great insight, thanks Andrea!