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How to deal with difficult people issues

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Most people can be managed normally – no problem. But a minority may be difficult.

I’ve been through that experience personally. When I first started with a large power utility, I found two of my staff had put up their hand for a voluntary redundancy scheme offered to all employees – and had been rejected. They were so keen to get out of there and felt so demoralized after the knock-back. What a problem I had inherited! I had to find out ways to address their issue.

What can be done about problem people?

You can try the performance management process, which is formal, legalistic, and often long-winded and ponderous. A formal process should be a last resort. Try an informal route first. 

Most difficult employees aren’t difficult because they want to be difficult. They would prefer to be happy at work. Therefore they are only being difficult for a reason or a combination of related reasons. Some of the reasons may be due to things you can’t change, but you can still seek to find a solution through other angles. 

The first and obvious step is to find the reason for the problem. The reason may be obvious, but not everyone tries to understand their people. Workplace issues are usually about relationships and if you focus on the problem person’s relationships you are likely to find some or all of the problem. Ask some questions about how they feel about being a team member and if they are happy with the other members of the team including you. Their views towards the people they work with are likely to surface

Quite often the battle lines are drawn without management recognizing the underlying issues. If the person hasn’t made their issues clear, and they have been reluctant to speak directly about the problem, try to understand them better by communicating with them.

Chat with them and try to get a better picture of their motivations, the reasons behind their attitude. Perhaps they have pressures at home. Ask some tactful questions about the family. Good supervisors know at least a bit about their personal life – their families, general health matters, recreational interests, vacation preferences etc. Try to explore these angles to find out where the person is coming from.

If you know the person is not happy about specific workplace things, but won’t raise them with you directly, discuss the general problem area. Probe further, but gently. Don’t force the questions, but try to dig deeper so you get past the predictable initial delaying response. Ask them, “What else?” in order to probe deeper. Repeat the question if the person is giving trite responses.

If you are not sure of the problem you may want to do some homework by speaking to their peers, the ones who you can trust, for some feedback on the problem. Perhaps you are the cause of problems because of your attitude towards that person or certain rules or requirements you have imposed on your work group. Others may not be upset by such impositions, but that person may be sensitive.

Perhaps you haven’t got to know the person well enough. Ask them questions such as “What do you believe your strengths are?” and “How can we make best use of your abilities?” Also try other questions such as “What would you do to solve this problem if you had the right opportunity?” The answers could be valuable.

Perhaps circumstances are stressful for both of you. Perhaps there have been layoffs, which could have been trying for you both. Perhaps you could be more patient with your staff.

Communication is a two-way process. Speaking is only a part of communication. Listening is more important than speaking. Unfortunately, most supervisors and managers talk too much and don’t listen carefully to their staff. If you ask the people who work for a manager or supervisor what their boss does when not talking, those people are likely to say something like: “Waiting to talk.” That’s not the same as listening!

Hearing people speak is only the beginning. Try to hear in between the lines, the things that aren’t said as well as the things that are.

When you listen, actively listen. Show you are listening. Paraphrase their words back to them. Say things like, “If I understand you correctly, you mean …” and “Do you mean, from what you are saying that…” When you are talking with them, look at them. Don’t check emails on your computer behind your desk or look around the room while they are with you. In fact, sit with them across a table so you are directly facing them. Ask them straight out: “Do you think I listen enough to what you are saying?” Give them your complete attention.

If you are still not getting anywhere with the problem person, you can try the direct approach recommended by Susan Scott, one of the best HR consultants in the United States, and the best-selling author of Fierce Conversations. She says to set up a meeting with a problem person, saying:

“When we meet tomorrow, I want to explore with you whatever you feel most deserves our attention, so I will begin our conversation by asking, “What is the most important thing you and I should be talking about?” I will rely on you to tell me. If the thought of bringing up an issue makes you anxious, that’s a signal you need to bring it up. I am not going to talk over you or bring my own agenda to the table. If I need to talk with you about something else, I will add it at the end or will arrange another conversation with you.”

Then at the meeting she advises letting the other person do most of the talking. Ask them to describe the issue that is most important to them: “What is the most important thing you and I should be talking about?” Ask them, “What is the current impact of this on you?” and “Who or what else is being affected?” Probe further; ask “What else?” at least three times. Listen carefully to what they say. Don’t worry about silences; just wait for the other person to resume. If you do most of the talking you learn little about the other person that you didn’t know already.

Don’t allow the other person to land the problem back in your lap. Say it is still theirs to deal with.

Ask what they feel about the situation: “When you consider these impacts, what do you feel?” Such meetings are usually quite tense as the other person will have deep emotions about the problem. Only when you get them to disclose their feelings will they realize the emotional price involved. 

Then lead on to say, “If nothing changes, what are the implications?” Ask, “What else?” Probe their feelings further, saying, “When you consider those possible outcomes, what do you feel?”

Ask the question: “How have you helped to create this issue or situation?” Don’t comment on the response except something like “That’s useful to know.”

Then ask, “What is the ideal outcome? When this is resolved, what difference will that make?” Keep probing; ask, “What else?” Probe feelings: “What do you feel when you consider these possibilities?”

Finally, ask, “What’s the most effective step you can take to begin to resolve this issue? What are you committed to do and when? When should I follow up with you?”

Don’t allow interruptions, don’t postpone or cancel the meeting, and provide plenty of time so you don’t have to cut the meeting short. If you allow any of these things to happen, you will be giving the person the message that they aren’t important to you, which will only compound the whole problem. 

You can also use these steps to resolve issues in your personal and family relationships. It’s a powerful process

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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