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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

How to Work with Difficult People

Based on a research study by the Society for Human Resources Management, they found that the number one thing that makes people happy at work is relationships with their co-workers. Their co-workers were described as supportive, easy to collaborate with, and could complete goals with them. This type of relationship allows a team to enjoy their day, feel more engaged, and are more productive. However, many teams struggle with difficult people at work.


Is there anyone who drains you, pushes your boundaries, asks for too much, or worries you? No one enjoys working with a difficult person and there are usually five types of difficult people: the downer, the shirker, the energy drainer, the tank, and the one-upper. The downer is super negative, thinks everything is bad, and is constantly bringing the gray cloud with them everywhere they go. Shirkers somehow get out of doing their work, miss deadlines, and still take credit for other people's work. Energy drainers suck the life out of you and by the end of each interaction with them you are exhausted. A tank is someone who is fine most of the time but as soon as they have been challenged they will blow up at everyone so it feels like you’re walking on eggshells around them. The one-upper is the know-it-all and believes they are always right and do things better.


There are two ways to approach difficult people: make them better or make you better. We encourage you to do both. Most of us may know of the saying “Treat others as you would treat yourself.” Although this is a nice rule, a better rule is “Treat others as they would treat themselves.” The first rule can be limiting because if you view others through YOUR lens, you’re constantly asking yourself, “What would I do in that situation?” or “How would I respond?” However, the moment a difficult person does something wrong, you think, “I would have never done that.” It’s better to view a situation from THEIR perspective and think, “How would they respond?”


To begin to understand others, you can use the OCEAN Framework. Every person has these five basic traits:

  1. Openness

  2. Conscientiousness

  3. Extroversion

  4. Agreeableness

  5. Neuroticism


We all rank high, medium, or low on each of these traits. What’s important to know is if you know how someone ranks on these traits, you can better understand their behavior.


Openness is how you approach ideas. A person with high openness is called an explorer. They enjoy experimenting, the unknown, and support new ideas. A person with low openness is called a preserver. They love predictability, routine, and sticking with tradition. If you have an explorer on your team, they can become a difficult person if they are caged in by routine. If you have a preserver, they can also become a difficult person when forced into newness.


By knowing this about your team, you can make people less difficult by optimizing how they are wired. For example, whenever you approach a preserver, start with what isn’t changing. When you first list out everything that’s not changing (e.g. same start and end time, same software, same desk, etc.), you lower their fear level by ensuring that not everything is changing. Then use data to explain why the change is worthwhile. If you have an explorer, have them pick a new desk, a new lunch cater, create a new committee, or start a new project because they don’t do well with routine.


Conscientiousness is how you approach planning. Highly conscientious people love details, steps, schedules, and lists. Allow high conscientious people to plan projects, take notes, and give them an agenda. On the other hand, low conscientious people are flexible, easy-going, don’t like details, and don't like to be boxed in by their schedule. It’s best to not send a 4 page email and instead send them one sentence describing the purpose of the project, list three things they need to know about it, ask them to answer one question you have, and end the email with “if you want more details read below”. If you have a highly conscientious person on your team, they’d appreciate that 4 page email.


Extroversion is how you approach people. You are probably familiar with this term: introvert. These are low extroverts who typically chat less, enjoy a quiet work space, need to prepare for social time, and like to observe. High extroverts enjoy teamwork, open office space, and are typically the cheerleader. Introverts can become difficult when they are overwhelmed, drained, and exhausted by people. It’s better to give them prep time and ask them their preferred communication rather than pop-by to check on them. Extroverts can become difficult when they are lonely, unheard, and experience a lack of belonging. Allow them to plan social hours, let them be the cheerleader of the team, and have frequent check-ins with them.


Agreeableness is how you approach teamwork. A low agreeable person is called a challenger. They are analytical, they want unbiased opinions, and will do their own research. A challenger becomes a difficult person if you don’t give them data and force them to say yes without them doing their own research. A highly agreeable person is called an adapter. They are great with team building, love cooperation, and tend to be people pleasers. An adapter becomes difficult when you enable their people pleasing tendency, meaning you ask them to do several tasks that they don’t have the time or skills to complete.


Neuroticism is how you approach worry. High neurotic people have a greater response to negative events, have high anxiety, and like to think through all the possible options. Low neurotic people are able to re-center, stay calm, and are more stable when negative events occur which is why a worrier can drive them crazy. High neurotic people can become difficult when they are afraid and low neurotic people can be difficult when they don’t understand the fear. It's beneficial to have both types of neurotics because high neurotics are good when planning for a crisis and low neurotics are good to have during a crisis. To optimize traits of a low neurotic, let them be the rock, and lead in a crisis. To optimize traits of a high neurotic, find out how they self-calm and how you can help.


Remember that people can become difficult when they feel they cannot be themselves. Difficult people might not change, but you can still optimize their traits.


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