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  • Adele

How do you deal with difficult people in the workplace?

Updated: Aug 6, 2023

We’ve all been there, at work and ‘that’ person has a knack of just rubbing us up the wrong way. Everyone in the office knows when ‘that’ person is around that they are going to be trouble, and no-one wants to deal with them.

Kirschner & Brinkman in their book ‘Dealing With People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring out the Best in People at Their Worst’ identify 10 key types of people and you are likely to encounter these in the workplace at some time in your professional life.

Here’s a brief summary of their nickname and their character traits:

I. The Sherman Tanks

a. Attack,

b. accuse,

c. get angry,

d. see thinks as concrete

II. The Snipers

a. Tease

b. Make digs

c. try to make you look foolish

III. The Exploders

a. Tantrums,

b. rage,

c. cry,

d. silent enragement

e. anger turns to suspicion and blame

IV. The know-it-all experts

a. Highly productive

b. Careful thinkers & planners

c. Believe facts

d. Don’t tolerate being corrected

e. Condescending

V. The Think-they-know-it-all

a. Seek respect of others by pretending to be experts

b. Don’t always realise they are not experts

c. Curious, can become nosy

VI. Super-agreeables

a. Want everyone to like them

b. Tell you things you want to hear

c. Say yes to everything then become resentful of doing too much

VII. Indecisives

a. Wont make important decisions, stall until the last minute

b. Have high standards

c. Try to help people

VIII. Unresponsives

a. Close down as soon as you ask a direct question

b. Clam up

c. Hard to work out why they are silent

IX. Negativists

a. Defeated – ‘we’ve tried this before, it wont work’ but then don’t give an alternative

b. Depressive

c. Pessimistic

d. Bring others down

X. Complainers

a. See fault in everything

b. Have their own idea of what should be done

c. Can often been some truth behind the complaint

What are you going when you come up against a person with a difficult behaviour?

· Label then

· Neutralise them

· Confront them

Need more confidence in what to say to someone with a difficult personality? Renee Evenson has a great book of ‘Powerful Phrases for dealing with difficult people’, its worth a read.

Did the problem go away?

If the problem behaviour hasn’t gone away, or is directed at other employees, or happens when the manager turns their back, then it is likely to start causing more serious issues within the team. Left unaddressed, it will create a toxic work atmosphere, and often cause other employees to start job-hunting. You may find a formal grievance heading your way and accusations of bullying, which you will have a legal obligation to address.

If you’re a manager or team supervisor you may be in a better position to deal with the behaviour. Maybe a private chat with the employee to discuss how their behaviour is impacting others is what is needed, you’re going to have to learn about conflict management.

What is Conflict Management?

Conflict management is the art of dealing with 2 or more opposing opinions or people that are causing a blockage to progress in the situation at hand.

In the workplace, conflict is common, but it needs to be dealt with swiftly before it can become a major problem.

The key is to resolve the conflict as quickly and efficiently as possible with the least disruption to the business environment.

There are 5 most commonly recognised Conflict Management styles in the world of HR, based on the Thomas–Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI):

1. Collaborating

2. Competing

3. Avoiding

4. Accommodating

5. Compromising

They work on using increasing / decreasing levels of Cooperativeness & Assertiveness on a X / Y axis type graph, with the 5 conflict management styles plotted on the graph.

Visit the TKI webpage to read in more depth.

What the law says about workplace conflict:

In the UK, every employer has a legal duty to protect its employees from bullying & harassment under the Equality Act 2010. Poor behaviour in the workplace often leads to accusations of bullying and subsequent formal grievances. Grievances are time consuming & costly to address, so SMEs need to avoid these where possible.

There is also a further UK legal requirement under the Health & Safety at Work Act to 1974 to protect employees from harm. It could be argued that poor mental health suffered as a result of workplace conflict, could be a breach by the employer.

Further Resources:

The CIPD has a downloadable guide for dealing with conflict in the workplace, here:

ACAS provides a guide on bullying & harassment at work here:

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