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Dealing with Difficult People

Working With Difficult People #01

One of the biggest workplace challenges for many of us is our relationships with others.  When I ask my workshop participants what are their biggest emotional intelligence challenges, most responses relate to dealing with difficult people.  Consider these common examples:

  • Team members criticize each others performance to the PM
  • Uppper management openly criticizes individuals in meetings
  • An individual sends a flaming email that results in unnecessary swirl of activity
  • A peer goes over your head to senior management without talking to you
  • A team lead inflates their own value and devalues work of others

As project managers, we need the ability to effectively deal with lots of different types of people in order to be successful.  Whether or not we’ll find them difficult or not is a function of two factors.  The first is our skill level as project managers at dealing with different people.  The second factor is the style, personality, and manageability of the other person we are dealing with.


If we were to plot these two factors against each other, it might look something like the drawing below that shows project manager skill level vs. the difficulty level of the other.  We are at greatest risk (the red zone) when our own skill level is low and we are dealing with people who are very difficult.  The lowest risk is when we are skilled and the other person is not very difficult. 

Difficultpeoplegrid_copyIt is important to appreciate the contribution of both of these factors.  By looking at and improving our own skill level, we empower ourselves to deal with others effectively.  If we ignore our own power and focus only on the other person, we will sound like a victim who is entirely at the mercy of others. 

But we aren’t responsible for all the problems of working with difficult people of course.  There are some people who are hurt, broken, mean, manipulative, psychotic, and flawed.  The fact is that there are some people that are hard to manage for anyone.  To ignore that and assume we are so good at leading that it doesn’t matter would be both a denial of reality and a confidence bordering on narcissism. It is also unrealistic and impractical to think about changing others.  Instead, we will look at ways of managing others that is most likely to give us the result we want and need.

So in these posts on working with difficult people, we will focus on building our skills at influencing and leading all people.  We will also strive to understand the various ways that people may be difficult so that we can be prepared to recognize and deal with them.  It is quite similar to managing risks; we need to be aware of what can happen to our projects and prepare plans to deal with them. 

Some specific things we will be looking at include:

  • What are the nuances of the different groups of people we need to manage (e.g. managers, technical people, sponsors, other PMs, vendors, other team members)?
  • What are effective leadership strategies for managing or leading those different groups of people?
  • How do we recognize different types of difficult people?
  • How can we remain unruffled and graceful when dealing with people who are difficult?
  • How do we choose effective responses to difficult people to move toward our goals?

Are you challenged by difficult people in the workplace?  I’d like to hear your comments and feedback.