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Dealing with difficult personalities at work.

By Lisa Woods (1789 words)
Posted in Communication Skills on July 4, 2012

There are (36) comments permalink

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Learn to work with difficult personalities so they do not interfere with your job.


You will encounter many personalities in your career.  Some of them are annoying, many inspirational.  What I want to address here are the difficult personalities that can stand in your way of accomplishing great things.  By understanding how to manage your way forward as you encounter them, you will grow professionally and possibly become an inspirational personality for them to learn from.


Here are six difficult personality types that can negatively impact your job, along with actions you can take to ensure they don’t.


The Every Day Grump

This is the person who always looks annoyed, never says hello, and uses the power of ignoring you as a tool to intimidate. 

  • You can break through to this person by being nice every time you see them, even when they don’t respond.  As far as you know you have not done anything to upset them, so you should continue to say hello, look them in the eye, throw in “today is going to be a great day” or “it is really nice to see you”.  Keep the sunshine beaming on them and eventually they will break because they know you are not going to change. 
  • These individuals are insecure communicators and would rather scare people away than be embarrassed by not knowing what to say.  The more you pull them to you, the better your chance of teaching them how to interact.


The Controlling Scrooge

These people have something you need but refuse to work with you.  They make your life impossible and force you to either drop your request or find someone else higher up in the food chain to deal with them.

  • The best way to approach these individuals is to be humble, show them respect, but do not back down from what you need.  Instead, ask them for a formal meeting and request their advice.  Explain what you are trying to accomplish and why.  Tell them that you have a dilemma and you do not know how to solve it.  Let them understand you first, and ask them, given your circumstances, if they could provide a solution for you.
  • These individuals throw their power around because they think it is the only thing they have to be respected for.  If you teach them about your needs and let them develop a solution for you (even if it has nothing to do with them), you will prove to them that you respect their intellect and advice, not just the fact that they are holding the key to something you need.  Once they feel respected for their knowledge, they will open up to you in the future and want to help you, sometimes going out of their way to show support.


The Negative, Foot Dragging, Head Drooping Downer

They complain about everything and everyone.  Rarely do they show signs of life unless it is on their terms.  They lack enthusiasm, they are very sarcastic and don’t know how to take a complement without needing to qualify it to mean something different.

  • Before you count this person out, keep in mind that you don’t know what they are going through in their personal life, nor is it any of your business.  All you can do is keep yourself positive at all times.  Hear the person out and be supportive, but never get pulled into participating in negative dialog.   Offer solutions or a positive perspective when they complain.  Never confide in them because they lack restraint when it comes to information.
  • These individuals do not know how to be positive.  They are so used to the tone of their negative voice that anything else sounds strange to them.  The only way they will learn is by your lead.  It is possible that the only thing they will learn is to not say what is on their mind when you are around…that is a good thing for you.  Or maybe by you not participating in the dialog, they will hear the differences and start to make an effort to change.

The Unsubstantiated Climber

This is the politician without a plan.  They are eager to please people above them while stepping all over you to do it.  Sometimes you work for this person, other times they are your counterpart.  They don’t do their climbing by showing great work product, instead they laugh at all the jokes, and kiss you know what instead.

  • These are the most difficult personalities to deal with, especially if you report to them.  You need to develop relationships outside of these individuals.  Make sure your work is known as being your work by getting input from others and talking about what you are working on.  Don’t get pulled into believing you need to act the same way to get ahead.    Focus on your work product, developing respectful relationships and the payback will come to you over time.
  • It happens all too often that people get ahead for the wrong reasons.  People like this exist because they don’t have a chance of succeeding on their own merit.  If you successfully maneuver around these individuals to be seen and heard for the right reasons, they will come to understand that rather than stepping on you, they have to start respecting you because they don’t want to be seen as the only person who isn’t doing so.


The Tyrant

They are typically higher up than you are in the organization. They use their position to intimidate and demean.  They will interrupt you, dismiss you and possibly verbally attack you.  They only appreciate those who admire them, but that does not stop them from attacking those individuals either.

  • Do not fight back, defend your position or engage these individuals.  As hard as it is to eat the blasts, you need to look them in the eye, listen to them and the words that they are saying, not the way they are being portrayed.  When they are finished….and only then…take a moment to acknowledge the words that were said by using phrases like “Understood” or “I respect your position on the matter.” Then, in a professional voice, get the conversation back to your points.  Stay calm, focused and professional.  If they start charging at you again…take it in, acknowledge it and get the conversation back on topic.
  • After a while they may figure out that they are not going to get under your skin and start to listen to what you have to say.  Or they will be so angry at their inability to control you that they will end the dialog.  Either way, you are the professional.  Over time they will see you differently because others who are witness to your professionalism will see you in high regard, or you will leave the company because it is not good enough for you.


The Naysayer

These individuals are not really difficult personalities, however you may perceive them to be.  They are typically experienced in their fields and in the organization.  They don’t like change and will create roadblocks if the change threatens to affect them.

  • Reach out to these people, be open to what they have to say, ask questions and learn from them.  They will open up to you quickly once they realize their perspective and knowledge is respected by you.
  • Many times these people come out of the word work when new employees or new leadership comes into the mix.  They fear that all of their efforts before the change diminish in value.  Once they are made comfortable and included by you, they are great assets to both you and the organization.


The funny thing about people with difficult personalities is that, for the most part, no matter which one they have in the beginning…once you break through to them, you will find they all have something in common…they are really nice people who are grateful you stuck with them.   Ignoring people is easy to do, taking the time to develop relationships and remove roadblocks is a professional lesson that will help you throughout your personal and professional life.


Take the time to reflect on all the people you work with.  Do they inspire you, annoy your, or hinder you?  If they inspire you, take note of how they handle situations and learn from their example.  If they annoy you, ignore their behaviors.  If they hinder you, try to implement the tactics outlined above.


There Is More To Learn!

With the need to mobilize teams, improve work efficiencies and generate positive results, having productive relationships with your boss, your co-workers & your employees is essential to your success.


ManagingAmericans now offers an On-Demand Webinar which examines 11 difficult personalities types: how to identify them, work with them and manage them when they are your employees.  We discus how to improve your own work culture and build a productive work environment for your team.  This Webinar also includes a Personality Self-Assessment and downloadable workbook to implement what you learn.


I hope this perspective is helpful to you in your day-to-day life.  Test out these concepts and share your results with us.  Others can benefit from your experiences. 


Good luck!


Written by Lisa WoodsPresident ManagingAmericans.com

Lisa is a successful entrepreneur, world-class marketing strategist, and dynamic business leader with more than 20 years experience leading, managing and driving growth. Throughout her career, Lisa has been influential in integration techniques, organizational and cultural overhauls, financial turnarounds and developing employees into exceptional leaders, results driven managers and passionate team contributors.


Do you have a question for Lisa?  Post it in our Executive Leadership Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Comments (36)

Quinton Farrell posted on: July 6, 2012

A great read

Becky OKeeffe posted on: July 6, 2012

I find you have the people that talk about doing something and those that just go and do it, the bit I find hard is how to get the talker to just go and do the job?? What makes it even harder is sometimes these people are on the same management level as me....I agree, its different personalities and learning how to deal with them....

Diann Martin PhD, RN posted on: July 8, 2012

Difficult people at work?? Hard to believe, oh my. So many weird folks out there, at my last job, I think everyone in the article worked there.

Richard A. Montanaro, PhD posted on: July 8, 2012

Great article - and YES they all do exist and I have worked with them.

Ellen Taylor posted on: July 9, 2012

Thank you! This is always a challenge in any office, it's always good to be prepared beforehand for any difficult personalities you may have to deal with in the workplace. I'll be starting a new job on Wednesday, so it's a good reminder!

Naomi Ramon Krzyzaniak posted on: July 9, 2012

Very timely! Thanks for posting. These are the types of quick refreshers that can get me back on track. Soldier on! Don't become weary in doing the right thing; in due time it will pay off.

aloke mookherjea posted on: July 9, 2012

Actually, one of the acid tests of a successful leader is to be able to handle difficult personalities. To boot, each of them is difficult in a "different" way and the way towards winning them are different.
May be later, some real life examples !

Krystie Herndon posted on: July 9, 2012

So have I! I especially like breaking down the grumps--I have plenty of experience in winning over grumpy colleagues with a positive, can-do attitude. Not fun sometimes, but I usually end up feeling a great sense of accomplishment.

Ryan N. Fenley, MBA, MHM posted on: July 10, 2012

Its kind of funny...to a certain degree. The people who normally have difficual personalities....lack COMMON SENSE and COMMON COURTESY! I agree with Diann! There are some people who need a "check up from the neck up!"

Colleen Delcamp posted on: July 10, 2012

Thank you. This is good and valuable information. I could identify individuals I work with when I read the descriptions and found the information helpful in regards to situations I deal with on a daily basis that no one will address. It has given me some incite and hopefully some ways to work through these situations. Everyone is going to have to go through professionalism training in the next few weeks. Hopefully this will fit right in with the information in this article and we can make this a better place to work.

Angie Krishan posted on: July 12, 2012

Thanks, great timing in sharing this article; we have 3 EA's in one office; two of us are mature, have common sense, etc however it's been awful since they added the third one about 6 months ago, she yells from the back of our office across the room over us; she's loud, never shuts up; comments in discussions when other people are talking to us, listens to all phone conversations and gives comments during the phone discussion and asks for details as soon as the conversation is over; it's so frustrating. She also seems to think she knows everything and there is nothing she can possibly learn ; omg :0)

Lisa Woods posted on: July 12, 2012

@ Angie Krishan- Sometimes people like that don't realize they are acting different. They want to be noticed but go about it the wrong way. By using some humor at the time she does something you can raise the issue without insulting her. Good luck!

Crystal (Chris) Butler posted on: July 13, 2012

This was very validating for me. However, you missed on other office thug. The bully and their enablers. There are three in a small department in Finance. They will gang up one employee, whom ever is the favor of the day and berate them. I have had a new supervisor say to me. You will not get a fair shake with them regardless of the issues.
Any suggestions on how to approach people like this????

Lucy Sewlal posted on: July 13, 2012

Thanks so much! It's good to know we all share the same challenges and can
provide support through these forums.

Bella Mmabatho Mashabathakga posted on: July 20, 2012

Great article. We learn every day of our lives. Those kind of people make you to be more strong, if you check those people are gossipers because the always check each and everything you do and they always have negative things to say, but they are not aware the that those are some of the challenges which makes one strong and helps you to grow.

Melanie Newton posted on: July 20, 2012

My husband Ron Newton has been helping companies for years solve their people problems in the workplace. From his experience, he's written a highly acclaimed book, No Jerks on the Job. Ron spent 20 years working with troubled youth before transitioning into the corporate world of "troubled" and "troubling" employees. He's found some very workable solutions for managers. Feel free to contact him to help you solve your "people puzzles."

O'Brien Margaret posted on: July 20, 2012

I have had the "pleasure" of working with many of the personalities listed. It has not always been an easy road however, I have had personal growth from each and every experience. There is one missing -the infamous bully- every office has one! Thank you for sharing, Dan!

Laura Bullock posted on: July 20, 2012

Some great advice! :0)

Sylvia Hepler posted on: July 21, 2012

One thing that can help regarding dealing with difficult and different personalities is the DISC management profile/DISC worker profile. Some of you may be familiar with DISC products. I would recommend these tools so that people can better understand each other. Another resource I want to offer here is a little booked entitled: Managing Difficult People: A Survival Guide for Handling Any Employee by Marilyn Pincus (2004). It's excellent--and an easy read.

Dawn Howell posted on: July 21, 2012

Great insight - I always thought I could define personality traits in the workplace but not as highly understandable nor in-depth as this posting is when dealing with difficult people. I tend to always agree with these type of people( I am the yes person) no matter how it hurts; knowing that my focus is to maintain a positive attitude - Stephen Covey's " 7 Habits of the highly effective people". By maintaining a professional attitude when dealing with these types of behavior as we most often cannot avoid these bullies in the workplace. Bullies are not liked by their boss's; I tend to believe that this is the underlining factor being a subordinate, they then lash out to feel inferior......... besides their own personal problems /issues.

Ellen Fries posted on: August 1, 2012

Lisa, Thank you for the advice. Having worked with many of these personalities (who hasn't?) and having been some of them myself at times, it's good to get some good ways to deal with them - as well as to see how others may see us.

Rebecca Johnson posted on: August 5, 2012

In a wonderful Org Behavior college class, we spent some time on a motivational grid: Power, Money, Relationships and Achievement. I've seen this several times in corporate training as: Dominant, Expressive, Amiable and Analytical. It really can help to know one's own major/secondary drivers and recognize those of colleagues. At one major corporation, our VP of Internal Comms brought in consultants to teach us the Friendly Style Profile and help each of us evaluate our personal profiles. Then we were required to post our colored cards (profiles) below the name plates on our cubicles. What seemed like a stretch proved to be wildly accurate. One of my graphic designers was red/red, so achievement-oriented when things were going well AND when things fell apart. I was red/green, so achievement-oriented for goals, but willing to preserve relationships when things got rocky. BIG difference in approach. Awareness is golden.


Rebecca L. Voss, MSC posted on: August 5, 2012

This is a great discussion topic. It forces us to step back from the minutia of our work and life and realize that, in the end, people are simply human beings and individuals with a wide range of differences. Then we're joined through all sorts of ways and for many reasons in order to drive an organization's mission, values.

I fiercely believe that there aren't "difficult people" ... rather difficult and, all too often, uncontrollable circumstances that we -- being the unique individuals we each are -- get thrown into/at. Ambiguity on top of ambiguity.

As a corporate communicator, it's this thinking and compassion that I strive to maintain consistently throughout everything I do. Needless to say, some situations are harder than others but, in those tough circumstances, I'm committed to focusing keenly on the end need/goal, and to minimize the politics and personalities. Or, at the very least, not contribute or exacerbate those dynamics further if/as they arise.

O. Ray Hanson JR. posted on: August 5, 2012

I really wished I had run into this long ago as this is a great read! It would have been far more beneficial than a bottle aspirin…LOL…:-D….Thanks for sharing Lisa!

Bruce Hilliard posted on: August 7, 2012

I firmly agree with the preceding comments. Like you I believe the key is to understand the other 'difficult' individual, and then utilize appropriate motivators within an effective communication framework. As a follow on from Rebecca's comments about motivators linked to Power, Money, Relationships and Achievement, the document provided at this web location may help to shed further light on this aspect:

This also contains links to files that will assist you to profile individuals and groups more effectively. I hope that this information will be of assistance.

Michelle Walkden posted on: August 11, 2012

I hate to admit it but I'm probably one (if not more) of the personalities in this post. Aarrgggh.
While I agree that to get things done and not get overly annoyed or pessimistic at the office it's important to find a way to work with these personality types, it's important to remember that companies and in particular managers have a responsibility to manage these kinds of personalities in a proactive and constructive way.
Despite being a bit of a downer at times (I'm prone to find problems) I was shocked out of this behavior quite effectively by a boss who didn't threaten or intimidate me but took the time to find out the underlying issue and solve it.
End of negativity (well, in that group at least).

Rebecca Johnson posted on: August 11, 2012

To follow Michelle's comment: years ago one friend managed an international sales group for Owens-Corning. To prevent what he considered non-productive complaining about problems, his rule was this: "You can come and tell me about any problem or challenge as long as you bring three possible solutions to the conversation."

Carol Brooks posted on: August 11, 2012

We all tend to be difficult at times, a bad hair day or two, or three, or.... Well, you get the picture. Since we're only human and when having a bad hair day, what we really need is someone to understand us. Someone who cares enough to spend a few minutes with us. To hear us. To talk us through the bed-head mentality. We also need to recognize that we're all interconnected. What I do, say, etc. affects you and conversely. So why not make the workplace, family life, etc. a better place and work together.

John Harper posted on: January 2, 2013

A really good insight into how people work and how to deal with same in simple to understand terms

George J. Ruggeri (JR) posted on: January 2, 2013

Great article and information.

Wendy Johnson posted on: January 2, 2013

I consider myself fortunate to work with a great group of people today. They really try hard to operate as family. There is a great mix of men and women and the majority being married. I've worked in government for many years and some of the places were very unprofessional. I hate to say it, but most of the strife in the offices I've worked was caused by women.

Dave Bell posted on: January 8, 2013

Perception can be a touchy thing. Performance equals potential minus interference. These difficult personality types certainly add interference, which lowers performance. Often, however, difficult people do not realize they are perceived to be either difficult or an interference. Getting them to look in the mirror and see what others see can be, and often is, both dangerous and exhausting. If you deal with them, be careful and patient. I wish you luck.

Casey Wheeler posted on: January 8, 2013

Thanks for sharing. We've all run across these types during our careers (and sometimes acted like one of them) and it is good to be reminded of ways to interact successfully (hopefully) with them.

Chris Miller posted on: January 8, 2013

This is a lot of really great advice. I wish I would have read this 20 years ago. Actually, even 5 years ago would have saved me so much heartache.

João Henrique Cerqueira posted on: February 5, 2013

I think that psychological influence is the most ignored on our day to day relationships.
Good article to help us to see ourselves and the others with new eyes and have a new beginning, if needed.

Harry posted on: May 7, 2013

Lisa - You have elegantly described the types of difficult employees managers and business owners have to deal with. It is not easy to deal with them and firing them right away may not be an option for everyone.

I recommend 4-step approach to deal with various categories of difficult employees 1) Communicate 2) Coax 3) Confront and 4) Kick out. You should try reconciliatory approach and confront only after they do not work resulting in eventual firing.

You can find additional details on this 4-step approach on the article I wrote. Would love to hear your expert opinion on it - http://www.smallbizviewpoints.com/2011/11/06/4-step-approach-to-deal-with-difficult-employees/

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