The Art of Communicating with Difficult People at Work

November 23, 2023 thehrobserver-hrobserver-communicationwithdifficultpeople

In all organisations, there will be some colleagues who managers or colleagues would describe as ‘challenging’. This may be down to poor behaviour, execution of work tasks and/or different communication skills.

Just because someone is perceived as difficult doesn’t mean we should automatically try to exit them from the organisation. They may have skills and abilities which add value and outweigh their weaknesses. Sometimes, employees perceived as being challenging can identify issues in the organisation that would otherwise have been overlooked, particularly if they are someone who likes to examine every small detail. It is also important to recognise that where everyone agrees with everything in an organisation, there may be group-think and restricted creativity. Therefore, having some appropriate challenges posed to the manager and organisation may be beneficial; provided that they can be communicated in an appropriate way.

So what might ‘challenging people’ look like? 

They may be perceived as:

  • Not wanting to be part of a team and preferring to work independently or within a self-selected group.
  • Exhibiting ‘bad behaviour’ for example, being rude to other colleagues
  • Not performing their roles to the required standard
  • Failing to follow instructions on a regular basis
  • Picking holes in plans or the work of others
  • Disruptive in the workplace

Organisations need to be able to identify what the issues might be and the extent to which they may be having a negative impact on individuals, the whole organisation or other stakeholders. Sometimes the actual problem lies with an issue-organisational requirement rather than it being around an individual colleague or manager. For example; people may find the finance manager challenging as they scrutinise even the smallest of transactions – however they are simply carrying out their job role. In these instances it is important that the issue and the narrative doesn’t become personal.

The next question to ponder is about who is finding these ‘problem children’ to be challenging, is the issue centred around a specific person or team or does it reflect the concerns of a wider group of people? Understanding the nature of this influences the possible ways of acknowledging and reflecting upon the challenge. It may be argued that if the strengths of the person outweighs the challenges they bring, that no action may be required. In these instances, it is still important to talk to the employee to ascertain whether or not they recognise the impact that they have on other people.

How can we deal with challenging people?

A holistic approach is recommended, this means having clarity during the recruitment and selection process about the values and characteristics you are looking for in employees. During interview processes it can he helpful to push prospective employees to share examples from their previous experiences and give them some scenarios to discuss how they would deal with them.

At the induction programme there should be very clear information about the expectations of the organisation and how employees are required to conduct themselves. This should be consistent with the employee handbook which clearly articulates behaviours that are not acceptable. Behaviours and relationships can also be explored in annual performance reviews but it is important to recognise that this shouldn’t be the first time that the issue is raised with them.

As mentioned earlier, whether or not they understand their impact on the behaviour of others is important. This will usually involve a tricky conversation with the line manager who should be able to give specific examples of behaviours or practices which have caused concern or upset.

Where a change in behaviour or practice is required, there is no one size fits all approach. People respond to different methods and therefore knowing team members is really helpful in identifying appropriate strategies to use. The initial approach would be to have a conversation with the person to discuss the issue at hand, the level of formality and location may depend on the issue being explored.

Having a conversation requires skills from the person conducting the meeting so that it is not perceived as being aggressive or one-sided. It is important to understand their perspective on what happened. If it emerges that the challenging behaviour may be attributed to a difficult relationship with other people, this may require a different HR route for resolution.

It is critical to find out what the trigger might be, is it in relation to working with certain people or are there specific scenarios where the problem might lie? Understanding this can also help both parties to identify what support might be needed to avoid subsequent problematic behaviour. Managers should use a coaching-type approach where the individual is encouraged to also consider what actions they could take in the future can also be helpful.

Ultimately if the behaviour moves beyond challenging into the realms of breaching organisational policies, this should be discussed with the relevant HR team so it can be investigated in an appropriate way.

What sort of behaviours should managers demonstrate when dealing with challenging people?

In order for managers to be able to have credible conversations they will need to ensure that they are role-modelling the types of behaviour that the organisation expects. Examples of this may include:

  • Staying calm when dealing with people who may be frustrated or annoyed.
  • Pausing a conversation which is getting out of hand to give all parties some time and space for reflection.
  • Using carefully chosen language which can’t be misconstrued.
  • Having specific examples ready – but without it being seen as confrontational or a portfolio of evidence.
  • Actions don’t need to be on one side; there may be things that the manager and/or organisation could also commit to.

By giving everyone the opportunity to express their views and then using a fair and transparent process to review what has taken place, many challenging behaviours may be overcome. Ultimately if this is not possible and there is a negative impact on the organisation, an exit strategy may be needed.


Professor Fiona Robson

Head of Edinburgh Business School and Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai

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