How to Deal with Difficult People

Debbie Zmorenski

One of the first people to study difficult employees in the workplace and to assign specific characteristic descriptors to these groups of people was Robert M. Branson. In 1981, he wrote a book called "Coping with Difficult People." In this book, he identifies seven categories of difficult people:

  • Hostile-aggressive
  • Complainers
  • Silent and unresponsive
  • Super agreeable
  • Know-it-all experts
  • Negativists
  • Indecisive

Today, these seven categories have been consolidated into three broad categories with very distinct characteristics. These three categories incorporate the characteristics and behaviors of Branson's original seven categories. They are:

  • Aggressor
  • Victim
  • Rescuer

Most experts believe that it is useful to characterize difficult people and then try to understand them as individuals. For each of these people, social and economic conditions had a lot to do with creating who they are. Contrary to popular belief, difficult people are usually not deliberately toxic, non-productive troublemakers. In fact, they are often employees whose intentions are good and are dedicated and loyal to the organization.

It is also important to note that if behaviors are especially malicious, this goes beyond the definition of difficult and is now labeled destructive. Below are brief definitions of the three categories of difficult people:

  • Aggressors: Their actions and behaviors are based on the belief that they must demonstrate a tough personality to get things done.
  • Victims: Sincerely want to do a good job and feel as though they would be successful if others would give them what they need.
  • Rescuers: Lose focus on their own productivity and responsibilities because they are convinced that they are doing the right and humane thing and the best thing for the organization by taking care of others who can benefit from their expertise and experience.

Seldom do these individuals act in a vacuum. The very nature of their personalities is to interact with others in the organization in ways that satisfy their particular needs. This is illustrated by the Karpman Triangle:

Conceived by Steven Karpman and originally devised as a therapeutic tool, it is also used as a communications device to plot the moves of a series of interactions between people. It demonstrates how the three difficult people personality types may play off one another or may even change places as the situation warrants.

For example, aggressive people find and create victims. Victims are easy prey for bullies. Victims do not get the job done but always have excuses as to why it is not their fault. Rescuers jump in to save the victim. The cycle can go round and round, with each playing their role, effectively supporting the behavior of the other two.

One type may also morph into another. For instance, if a rescuer and a victim should push back very hard on an aggressor, the aggressor may revert to victim behavior. The aggressor may say things like, "It's not my fault," "I was just told to do this," "I have to act like this," "No one will help me," or "No one likes me!"

As a manager, you must stop the cycle. Managers, co-workers and team leaders can have a positive impact by understanding who these people are and what drives them and then reacting in ways that diffuse rather than escalate the behaviors. Below are the characteristics of each type of difficult person and tips for dealing with them.

Characteristics of Aggressors

  • Demanding and loud
  • Poor listeners
  • Interrupters
  • Must-win
  • Sarcastic/rude
  • Bullies

Aggressors are often tolerated in the workplace because they tend to be productive and get things done, usually in all the wrong ways. Often, because they are productive, they are promoted into management and executive positions. The Type "A" manager of the 1970s and '80s is a great example of the aggressor personality type. No matter their level in the organization, what must be considered is how they are impacting others' ability to get work done, their effect on morale and the consequences of employee turnover as a direct result of the aggressor's behaviors.

Tips for Dealing with Aggressors

  1. Let them vent: Letting them vent satisfies their need to get it all out. Wait for them to calm down. Try not to prejudge.
  2. Use active listening skills: Practice active listening skills by listening to understand, not to respond. Hold your thoughts, make eye contact and take notes. Remain objective and do not take what they say personally. They may actually have a valid point once you get beyond the aggressive and dominating behavior.
  3. Keep your emotions under control: An emotional response will only add fuel to the fire. If you try to point-and-counterpoint with an aggressor, you will lose and possibly say something you will regret later.
  4. Hold your ground: Do not change your position out of intimidation. If you allow an aggressor to intimidate you into getting his or her way, you will have supported the unacceptable behavior, further convincing the aggressor that bullying behavior gets results.
  5. Address the key issue only: Clarify their point on the key issue. Do not get drawn into other issues. As aggressors get going, they may bring up all of the things that ever bothered them. Calmly say things like, "For now, let's focus on your key point."
  6. Do not embarrass them: Do not embarrass them in public. This creates an aggressive defensive reaction, escalating the angry behavior.
  7. Give them a way out/seek a win-win: Aggressors need to feel respected, even if they cannot be right. Say, "You know, I hear what you are saying and you make some valid points, but in order for us to move forward, it has been determined that the best path is … and we are asking that you become part of the team, even if you think we are wrong."

Characteristics of Victims

  • Appear to be timid/helpless
  • Believe that people don't understand them or their situation
  • Tend to feel sorry for themselves
  • Tend to blow things out of proportion
  • Blame others for their problems

Victims have a seemingly endless list of excuses as to why they do not get their work done or accomplish their goals. They will often point fingers at someone else or to circumstances that they feel were beyond their control. Victims can be heard to say things such as "It's not my fault," "I didn't have the information (or tools) I needed," or "No one explained it to me."

Tips for Dealing with Victims

  1. Listen: Again, listening is going to be the critical skill that gains results. As with aggressors, practice active listening skills.
  2. Provide feedback on your understanding of what the victim says and show empathy for how they feel about the situation: The victim will give you plenty of time to respond. They need for you to respond. They want feedback, especially that they did OK and that you understand why they had difficulties getting their work done or accomplishing the goal. However, you must resist the temptation to support their need for validation in their behaviors and failures. Your feedback should only validate that you understand what they are saying.
  3. Focus on solutions and the future: Clearly communicate what they should do differently next time. Precisely state your expectations for future deliverables and behaviors.
  4. Find ways to help them achieve short-term wins: Tell them what they are doing right. Give them an example of something they did well in the past and encourage them to perpetuate that behavior or action.
  5. Demand solutions for complaints: Do not let them complain without giving solutions. It is more difficult for them to remain the victim if they are part of the solution.
  6. Help them prioritize their problems (or perceived problems): Assist them in putting things in perspective. Be honest. Say things like, "I understand what you are saying, but the fact is I need results from you. What can I do to help you meet our expectations?"

Characteristics of Rescuers

  • Always willing to help others
  • Need to be liked and appreciated
  • Know-it-all behavior
  • Know how to jump in to save the day
  • Avoid confrontation
  • "Yes" people
  • Take responsibility for others rather than themselves

At first, rescuers may seem like the ideal employee, always willing to help. However, in their need to help others and therefore be appreciated and liked, they tend to over-commit to others and are often not able to deliver on their own work. They soon become a source of frustration to fellow employees and managers. Rescuers are often the know-it-alls. Be aware when dealing with these people that one of the things that drives their rescue behavior is their belief that they know more than everyone else, including the managers. Rescuers may bend or break the rules to achieve rescuing goals because they believe they know what is best for the project, department and/or organization.

Tips for Dealing with Rescuers

  1. Hold them accountable: Rescuers must be held accountable for their behaviors. Coaching and counseling at the very least may be in order to get them to see that they cannot be all things to all people and in fact would better serve the organization if they would focus on doing an exceptional job on their own work.
  2. Assign them more responsibilities: If rescuers do not have enough responsibility to keep them busy, they will revert back to their natural habit of rescuing others in "their spare time." It may be beneficial to give them additional tasks and responsibilities.
  3. Clearly and concisely describe parameters and deliverables: Explain to the rescuer that he or she has certain tasks that must be taken care of in order to be successful in the organization. If that person perceives that someone he or she works with is in trouble, encourage that person to bring it to the manger's attention and then let it go.
  4. Be appreciative, sincere and respectful about their contributions: Thank them for their contributions. Tell them you appreciate their dedication to the organization.
  5. Avoid putting the rescuer on the defensive: An indirect approach is usually very effective with the rescuer personality. You might say, "I understand how important this project is to you, so let me explain how you can help the most."
  6. Help them see that others need to learn on their own: If the rescuer sees that he or she may be having a negative impact on a co-worker by always bailing them out, that person is more likely to see his or her behavior as damaging rather than helpful.
  7. If possible, use them as a trainer or coach to help others: This satisfies the person's need to rescue and channels the energy in a helpful way.

It is true that difficult people can absorb a great deal of a manager's time. However, most organizations find great benefit in taking the time to understand them and help them refocus their energies on behaviors that are productive and positive.

Let's face it; difficult people are not going away, partly because they do not see themselves as being the difficult person. This does not mean that you can let difficult employees' behaviors have an ongoing detrimental effect on the organization. If you cannot redirect their energies and change those behaviors that negatively impact fellow employees and the operation, you may have to fire them. But firing all difficult people is not practical, nor is it the right thing to do.

Lastly, I would challenge you to look in the mirror and answer the question, "Are you a difficult person?"

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About the Author

Deborah K. Zmorenski, MBA, is the co-owner and senior partner of Leader’s Strategic Advantage Inc., an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm. During her 34-year career with the Walt Disney W...