Working with difficult people – Part 1: Causes of unwelcome behaviour

What makes people difficult? Few people consciously operate in “difficult” mode; for the most part, difficult behaviour is a defence mechanism, used without awareness of the impact that it has on others. This blog post, the first in a series on this important topic, describes some of the reasons why people can be difficult, and suggests some strategies for dealing with the sort of issues that can arise.

Causes of unwelcome behaviour

A number of factors may be the cause of unwelcome behaviour. People may be fearful about change, anxious about their ability to perform, or angry about how they have been treated in the past, or they may feel undervalued for the contribution that they are making. These emotions can often result in defensive behaviour that has a negative impact on others.

Sometimes, “difficult” is a label that does not genuinely reflect reality: differences in behavioural style can all too easily be perceived as difficult behaviour.

For example, someone who prefers a slow-paced, step-by-step approach to their work may perceive a faster-paced person, who wants quick results, as impatient and pushy. Someone who likes big-picture thinking may see a more detail-oriented person as nitpicking, and a person who has a planned and ordered approach to their work may perceive someone who works better in short bursts and closer to the deadline as careless and disorganised.

One common reaction to difficult behaviour is to ignore it and hope that it will resolve itself. While this sometimes happens, more often the difficult behaviour becomes entrenched, and if the individual never receives feedback about the impact of their behaviour, they are not going to change.

Difficult people can be anywhere in the organisation. You may find managing upwards a challenge if you have a boss who is demanding or inaccessible. You may have colleagues whose behaviour causes problems, team members who are having a negative impact on the rest of the team, or customers constantly on the phone with complaints that seem trivial to you.

Once you have some ways of understanding what causes difficult behaviour and your reaction to it, plus some tactics for dealing with it, you will feel more resourceful, and this will have a positive impact on the work environment.

A quick five-point guide

1. What makes people difficult?

There may be a variety of factors involved, some of which are described above. Most people are not consciously operating in difficult mode, but may be using a defence mechanism without being aware of the impact that it has on others.

2. Why do people react in a defensive way?

When we perceive a threat to our well-being or position, we respond in a defensive manner. This defensive response pattern can take many forms, but the overall effect is to prepare us to fight, freeze or flee the threatening situation in order to protect ourselves. Physically, emotionally and intellectually, we are in an aroused state that is concerned with self‑protection and defending.

3. What strategies can I use to handle anger or emotional outbursts?

The SAFE approach to handling difficult situations can be very effective in enabling you to stay calm and contain the emotion. The four stages are:

Seek to understand

Acknowledge emotions

Focus on outcomes and needs

Encourage alternative behaviours

4. What if the difficult person is my boss?

A good place to start is to look for differences in behavioural styles. Does your boss operate at a faster or slower pace than you? Is he or she focused more on the task or the people?

A key strategy here is to understand your own preferred behavioural style and that of your boss. If your boss’s preferred behavioural style is very different from your own, then it is useful to adapt your own behaviour to that of your boss.

5. How do I give feedback when someone is behaving in a non‑productive way?

Know what you want to achieve with the feedback. Ensure the feedback is about something the person can change.

Be clear and specific, giving examples; be constructive, and ensure that the recipient of the feedback knows what you want them to do differently.

My next post in this series will be about the root causes of defensive behaviour. In the meantime, for advice on dealing with difficult behaviour among your employees, email me or call me on 020 7099 2621.