The definitive guide to difficult personalities and how to deal with them

Throughout your career, it’s inevitable you will come across people who are difficult to get along with. Whether it be your boss, colleague or a client, difficult personalities can have a big impact on your happiness at work, as well as your ability to do your job.

This guide will outline the types of personalities you may encounter in the workplace and the best approaches to dealing with each of them. It will also give you a step-by-step guide to addressing conflicts with difficult people so that you can improve your working relationships, communicate more effectively, and get the support you need.

Challenging personalities in the workplace

  • People who ‘know it all’

This personality can be frustrating to communicate with because they feel they are always right. They tend to have strong opinions and do not take on others’ thoughts and ideas, as they believe they know best. This type of behaviour tends to occur when an individual feels the need to be heard, so it is often effective to first acknowledge what they are saying before adding your own perspective on an issue.

  • People who are highly anxious

While this personality type is not overtly difficult, it can be challenging to provide constructive feedback to an individual to take things to heart easily. The greatest challenge in managing highly anxious people is that can take a lot of effort and energy to manage their emotions, so as not to offend. When approaching a difficult conversation with these individuals, it’s important that you create a space where they feel safe and supported, using positive language where possible.

  • People who are easily angered

Otherwise known as a ‘bully’, this personality is hot-headed and uses aggressive language and personal attacks to get their point across – and get their way. Bullies can be incredible difficult to deal with, as they can create a negative workplace culture, undermine your work and impact your mental health. It’s important not to engage in aggressive workplace behaviour where possible, and to set clear boundaries for how you wish to be treated.

  • People who are passive aggressive

You might recognise this personality type by their inability to communicate their thoughts directly and follow through on their commitments. Rather than state their underlying negative feelings, they tend to use sarcasm, silent treatment and gossip to get their point across, which can be hurtful and disruptive. This personality type responds best to direct, clear and calm communication.

  • People who are ego-driven

These individuals think very highly of themselves, typically lack empathy and can have a difficult time receiving criticism. They may take credit for your work, be overly sensitive when you offer feedback and struggle to acknowledge your emotions or concerns. Interestingly, this personality type is often quite insecure so you can build rapport by recognising their efforts where appropriate. However, it’s also important to maintain healthy boundaries and ensure you are looking after your own mental health when dealing with ego-driven individuals.

  • People who are highly critical

A highly critical person in the workplace is challenging to be around, as they are often very negative, have impossible standards and tend to focus on problems rather than solutions. From a colleague who feels the world is against them, to a manager who is constantly critical of your work, this personality type can be exhausting and demotivating. The best way to handle this negativity to be solutions-focused, either through asking them what they feel would resolve their concerns or by suggesting your own ideas.

  • People who are lacking drive

This personality type lacks motivation, which can result in them side-stepping their responsibilities, not delivering work on time or to the best of their ability. This may put additional pressure on you and your wider team, as you pick up their slack. When dealing with an unmotivated person, it’s important to be clear about your expectations of them, while being respectful of any personal matters than may be impacting them.

6 steps to take when dealing with a difficult personality at work

  1. Lead with kindness

It’s easy to feel frustrated or overwhelmed when working with a difficult person, but it’s important to keep your composure as being reactive often creates more tension and drama. When approaching a conversation or situation that involves a difficult personality, remember to stay calm, rationale and respectful as this will increase your chances of getting a positive result.

  1. Practice active listening

The best way to understand what a difficult person wants is to give them the space to communicate and feel heard. This means, being curious and asking questions, allowing them to respond without interruptions and reiterating that you understand what they are saying. In turn, you may find they give you the same courtesy.

  1. Consider their perspective

Empathy can be a powerful tool when communicating with difficult personalities. By trying to understand their side of the story, you may learn something that helps to explain their behaviour. You certainly don’t have to agree with their perspective or condone their behaviour, but using empathy can help you build a stronger and more productive working relationship.

  1. Take time to reflect

While it’s easy to recognise problematic behaviour in others, it can be more challenging to notice it in yourself. It can be helpful to check in with your emotions and take note of your emotions and if you notice any patterns or triggers that emerge when dealing with difficult personalities. By becoming more self-aware, you can better manage your own reactions and identify ways to support yourself to navigate difficult interactions.

  1. Escalate if necessary

If you’ve attempted to resolve challenges with a difficult personality at work in a respectful manner and you are still experiencing ongoing issues, you should consider reaching out to a trusted member of your leadership or HR team. While gossiping will not help your cause, informing management of how this individual is affecting your work or mental health can help you to work towards a solution.

  1. Get some space

If the event that you have tried every tool at your disposal and you are still not making progress towards a more harmonious working dynamic, it can be beneficial to get some space. Whether you take a pause to clear your head during a heated conversation or take leave to consider your options, getting space can help you gain clarity and approach the situation with fresh eyes.

Final thoughts on dealing with difficult personalities

Ultimately, you are going to meet people in work, as in life, that push your buttons and create challenges. In most cases, these people are unlikely to change their behaviours so it’s important to focus on what you can control – how you respond, how you manage your self-care, and the boundaries you set.

The Corporate PA Summits, Emerging Leaders Summits and Corporate Health and Wellbeing Summits are packed full of topics to support you to develop your communication and interpersonal skills, supercharge your productivity, and to inspire you to reach your potential.

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