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Nincompoops & Stick-in-the-Muds: Dealing with Difficult People

Despite challenges, as a manager you must find ways to encourage cooperation and productivity to foster environment for business success.

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Love your job but sometimes really dislike dealing with some of the people you work with? Trust us, you are not alone. In fact as a manager and leader in your feed and grain business, your job heavily involves dealing with people — your subordinate employees, other managers and co-workers, customers, and others. Some people are always pleasant, easy and enjoyable to work with, but as you well know, often you will find some very difficult people at work. As a manager, you are much like an athletic team coach; you must find ways to encourage cooperation and productivity in order to have business success, as well as more enjoyable workdays. In this month’s column, we discuss some of the types of difficult people you may encounter and some of the approaches for dealing with these oh-so challenging souls.

Who are the difficult people?

Difficult people come in a variety of packages — some are much less pleasant to unwrap and open than others. Columnist Susan Heathfield suggests that dealing with difficult people is easier when the person is generally just obnoxious or when their behavior impacts multiple people; dealing with them is more challenging when they are only attacking or undermining you. Why are some people difficult to work with? Some people just generally enjoy being difficult; it is part of their personality, while others do not recognize — in fact they are oblivious to that fact — that they are difficult; and others are often only difficult in specific situations. Let’s see if you recognize some of these example types of people (we borrowed some of these names from Dawn Rosenberg McKay at

The Talker, aka Chatterbox, aka Chatty Cathy or Chatty Chuck — As the name suggests, this person talks a lot, about any number of topics. They are not afraid to share their thoughts. They typically do not mean any harm, but their talkativeness impacts yours, others, and their own ability to work.

The Gossiper —This person wants to know everything about everyone, seems to know it, and works on sharing it with anyone and everyone who will listen. Sometimes this person is also the Talker. One problem with the Gossiper is that gossip often contains both truths and untruths; it may also be being shared behind someone’s back. Depending on the amount of time spent talking, the Gossiper can also detract from others’ ability to work. And clearly if the Gossiper is spending all their time gathering and sharing gossip, it is impacting their own work too.

The Sniper — The Sniper displays covert hostility and displays it with subtle behavior. They find pleasure in using sarcastic tones of voice, giving humorous put-downs and potshots, and shooting disapproving looks. The Sniper is more consciously difficult than the Talker and Gossiper.

The Complainer — This person is always unhappy about something; it may be work related or it may be family related, or it may just be something basic or general. But, there is always something for the Complainer to complain about. Not only does the recurring grumbling bother others and impact their work, it brings unnecessary negativity to the workplace.

The Silent One — A consistently Silent person is difficult to work with because he/she does not participate or contribute to discussions. They may only contribute by saying “I don’t know.” They may not behave socially and may seem to ignore others.

The Credit Grabber — Credit Grabbers are difficult because they take all the credit for projects and do not acknowledge the work and assistance of others.

The Domineerer (or Dominator) — A domineering person can be so in a variety of ways. They can be perceived as directly aggressive. They seem to force their ideas on others, and others often feel that if they do not just agree and go along, then the Dominator will make them regret it later. The Domineerer often dismisses the suggestions of others and prevents others from attempting to contribute and participate. They may always need to have the last word in any discussion or piece of work. A dominating person may also verbally abuse others. They might frequently display unpredictable behavior and suddenly go into a rage. They may stare at you attempting to stare you down. Part of their dominance comes from being unpredictable and keeping other people fearful and guessing.

Keep in mind that the above are only some examples; there are certainly other traits that people display that can lead others to consider them difficult individuals. For example, have you ever encountered an arrogant or defensive person? Maybe they know it all and do not appreciate you asking questions or making suggestions. What about someone who does not keep commitments, or someone who spends a lot of time talking but does not make much sense or contribute anything meaningful? Or, what about a moody person, or what about the cunning person whose motives you find yourself always questioning? We think by now you probably have the idea and maybe even a few specific people in mind. Also, we realize that some people may exhibit multiple traits . . . some might even call this multiple personalities . . . but we’re not going to take this article that deep (sorry no heavy psychoanalysis here).

Approaches for dealing with difficult people

People can be our most valuable resources, but dealing with difficult people can certainly be challenging and time-consuming. As a manager, it is your responsibility to lead the business in success, and this means handling the tough and not-so-fun situations. Often people do not react to difficult people in the most useful or effective manner. We all find it easier sometimes to ignore or avoid the person and the behavior than to deal with it. However, refusing to deal with it does nothing to discourage the same continued behavior in the future, gain respect for you, or improve the business to get the results you desire. Much of dealing with difficult people can be summed up in one word — communicate. And, how you handle a situation and communicate with a difficult person may depend on whether they are your employee, co-worker, boss, etc. We provide a number of strategies that can be used with different types of difficult people in various situations.

Think and communicate

As a manager in the grain and feed industry, one method for impacting employee behavior is to address it during employee reviews and evaluations. Discussing positive and negative employee attributes during an evaluation can be an effective method for bringing about change. It can alert employees to negative behaviors that they may or may not be aware of, and it allows you to get these on record as having been discussed. As part of the communication with employees, it is especially important to document these review conversations and discussions. One method for doing this is to write a letter or report that you sign and also have the employee sign. This provides sufficient documentation that can be referred to later; it is very important to have documentation that you have gone on record about negative behavior and the employee has been notified. If the negative behavior continues, the documented record will serve as an aid should you decided to terminate the employee.

Since reviews only take place periodically, it will sometimes be necessary to address some difficult situations as they occur. If the difficulty with an individual relates to talking of some type, you need to find a way to reduce the talking, change or eliminate it. There is always the very direct route of just telling them they are talking, gossiping, or complaining too much, or that subject matter might be inappropriate, and the talking makes it difficult for you and/or others to work.

However, a little bit of tact can accomplish the same result and possibly avoid alienating or insulting the employee. This can be done by interjecting into the conversation, asking a question about the status of a work-related issue or project, or assigning a new task to be done now. If you do this repeatedly in these situations, the person or people should get the clue. If, instead, you are dealing with a silent person, do not ask them yes or no questions; this forces them to provide a different answer. You may have to push them a bit. Continue asking questions to get them to talk.

As a manager, you may encounter co-workers who are Snipers. You may sometimes decide it is in the best interest to just ignore the Sniper’s comments and hostility. This can be an appropriate response if the possibility of an escalated situation would be a more negative outcome. This may be especially true if the hostility is delivered via e-mail. Writing a rapid response e-mail and sending it may be something you severely regret later. Waiting to respond or not responding at all may be better choices. At other times you may want to call the Sniper out and put them on the spot. Ask them a question about their comment. They may not be expecting you to respond at all. Questioning them whether in person or via e-mail about it can cause them to think about doing it in the future and will likely reduce this kind of behavior.

As a feed and grain executive, you may encounter difficult, aggressive and domineering behavior from both co-workers and customers. Aggressive and domineering people can be dealt with by standing up to them. They generally expect to be able to run over people, cause others to just walk away, or fight out of anger. Resist these temptations, especially the one to fight. Stay calm and collected and assert yourself. It is generally useless to argue with someone who is being openly aggressive, defensive or who is in attack mode. You don’t have to fight to win and be right. It’s like the song The Gambler; “you gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.” Going all-in now may not be the right move. Pushing them will only continue to make them act more negatively. Wait for the person to run out of some steam, and then calmly but forcefully express your opinions with confidence. Do not fight; only assertively express yourself. An aggressive and domineering person is not likely to change, but asserting yourself as someone who is not afraid of them will make them recognize you as such. Another tip for dealing with a domineering or aggressive person is to understand repeated behavior. If the person seems to act this way when under stress, choose other times to pursue topics and discussion. If Mondays mornings — or all day on Mondays — are times that such behavior tends to appear, then wait until another day. OK, so this might seem a little like avoidance, but why take a lashing if you don’t have to, and with some people you just have to recognize that you cannot change their behavior; you can only react to it.

Don’t take it personally

As humans it is in our nature to take the negative behavior of difficult and problem employees personally. However, you will be a better and happier manager if you can avoid doing so. In most cases, negativity and difficulty associated with an individual is actually about them and not about you. Try to not let it bother you. This is easier said than done. However, if you closely examine the difficult behavior of the individual, you will likely find they are difficult with everyone, not just you. Focus on the issue, use appropriate strategies for dealing with the difficult behavior, and don’t let it pull you down personally.

Improving behavior to improve your business

As we have said before, dealing with difficult people involves considerable communication and skill. As a manager, you can help the business by helping your subordinates recognize their negative behavior and understand how it is damaging to the business. By talking to your employees, pointing out situations of difficult and negative behavior, helping them set goals and monitoring their behavior, you can influence change that will make the workplace more enjoyable and more productive.

Remembering to think, controlling yourself and your responses, and communicating effectively will help you deal with the difficult people in your business. For useful additional philosophical approaches to dealing with difficult people, see The site suggests that the individuals who are the best at dealing with difficult people seek to, among other things, understand people and help people, build trust, find solutions, communicate well, act normally and recognize positive qualities. These are certainly useful tools and approaches to know.

Many managers (but not all) tend to be good “people” persons — ie., they enjoy working with people. However good your people skills are, they can still be honed and improved. The adage that managers “get things done through people” is a good approach to business management and fits well for the feed and grain industry. Good luck in dealing with the difficult folks!

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