How To Deal With Difficult People On Your Projects

I can only guess what type of projects you work on and what challenges you have, but there is one thing I know for sure: you have definitely encountered difficult people on your projects. The truth is that throughout your entire life and career you keep meeting people who put you down.  However, when you come across an unpleasant stranger in your daily life, it’s not a big deal. Let’s assume that you have had a conflict with a stranger in a public place. You definitely will be disappointed for a couple of hours or maybe even for the whole day, but later you`ll forget about this accident because you are unlikely to meet this person again. Another case is when you are in working relationships with the person who you find difficult to communicate with. This everyday tension may significantly influence you, your team and your project. That’s why it is very important to learn how to deal with difficult people on your projects with minimal impact on your performance and mood. 

Who is a difficult person?

In this article by difficult person I mean a person whose behavior is challengeable for you. To be fair, the notion of “difficult person” is a subjective concept. The behavior that challenges you may be considered by another person as absolutely normal. However, there are some generally accepted normal behaviors and the violation of them will be condemned by any group or society. Anyway, you need to learn how to deal with people you find difficult to communicate so that they won’t affect your mood, your motivation, and your performance.

The bad news is that you as a leader, probably, will face inadequate behavior far more often than regular employees. The good news is that there are a number of techniques that allow you to minimize the impact of such behavior. These techniques are effective in most cases and can be mastered with practice. 

Examples of difficult behavior on projects:

Let’s see the most common examples of difficult behavior you may face on your project:

1. Neglecting all your ideas without any adequate arguments

In general, constructive criticism is something that must be not only accepted but also encouraged by leaders. There is nothing bad in debates around your or anyone else’s ideas. An effective team can be built only on the principle of transparency. But when you see that some person neglects your idea, not explaining why it is bad and not suggesting any alternatives, it may become the first alert for you. If you observe such behavior of one and the same person again and again, it is a clear sign that something is wrong not with your idea, but with that person or your relationship with him or her.

2. Being impolite or rude with you and colleagues

The first example of impolite behavior I come across on my project very often is interrupting other people during meetings. Frankly speaking, all of us do this from time to time inadvertently. It’s very easy to fall into this sin during a remote meeting, when a little longer pause may be considered as the speaker has finished his speech.  However, this is a good manner to apologize if you have interrupted someone incidentally. Unfortunately, I met people who just didn’t want to listen to others. They keep interrupting their teammates and push their own ideas like they are the only ones who matter. This is all wrong.

Another completely unacceptable example of impoliteness is yelling at the colleagues and using swear words in their address. I know that corporate life is cruel and everyone may fall victim to a nervous breakdown. But, unfortunately, you may encounter people, for whom swearing at their colleagues is a normal communication style.

3. Not following the rules

Team discipline is a keystone of project success. It is a good practice to make an agreement within the team regarding those things that have an impact on your project, among them are, for example, meeting rules, vacation and days off policies, etc. Since these ground rules are agreed on upfront, it is a natural expectation that they will be followed. If someone keeps breaking agreements and ground rules it will lead to low morale and low productivity.

4. Not keeping commitments and promises

Contemporary projects rely heavily on people `s responsibility and ability to manage their own work. This is especially true for the software development industry. When a person has committed to some task, it means that this person is the owner of this particular task and the whole team or management expects the final outcome on agreed dates and terms. If you have people on your project who regularly don’t make their commitments and promises, you`re definitely in big trouble.

5. Ignoring you and your ideas

We started the list of potentially difficult behavior with a person who is neglecting your or your team members` ideas. But there is even more challenging behavior to deal with, in particular, ignoring you or your ideas. It means that a person is not engaged in an open confrontation with you, says nothing against your ideas, but when it comes to the action, just stays inactive. A good example of such behavior is being present, but not participating actively in team meetings. I bet many of you have faced with people who are scrolling their smartphones on the meetings, instead of listening and actively participating in a discussion. Errr, how irritating it is!

Dealing with difficult people at work:

Now let`s see how you can manage challenging behavior and difficult people on your project. Certainly, a response strategy to difficult behavior is varied depending on the situation, but there are general rules that are applicable to any type of challenging behavior.

1. Take a pause

In most cases, difficult behavior manifests itself in some completely unexpected for you actions. When you are facing any kind of difficult behavior, there is always a temptation to respond instantly. Instead of reacting immediately with the first (and usually not the best) response instinctively “suggested” by your brain,  just make an effort and take a short pause. Don`t say anything or take any action for 5-10 seconds, just silently count to 10 in your head. This pause gives you a chance to evaluate the situation and come up with a response strategy calmly. Usually, this pause, which can`t go unnoticed, also has a sobering effect on an attacker. After all, a person may have done something wrong unintentionally and now he or she, at least, understands this.

2. Stay calm

This is easier said than done. When you are facing a toxic person attacking you in front of others, a real storm of emotions is raging inside you. But there are a number of techniques that can help you control yourself. One of them is deep breathing. When you breathe deeply even for such a short period of time as 10 seconds, this sends to your brain special neurotransmitters that calm you down. There is another technique that I find helpful. In this case, you should imagine that the words or actions of an attacker have not achieved the goal (you) and fallen down between you and your opponent. It is much easier to talk about something which is virtually between both of you, not on your side.

Anyway, staying calm is in your favor. The attacker will see that his assault didn’t disturb you (which was his or her goal). So, he kind of lost. At the same time, if there are other people witnessing the situation, your calmness will tell them that you`re confident and your authority can`t be broken by these miserable attacks. 

3. Ask questions

From my point of view, asking questions is the most powerful technique when dealing with difficult people. You may use this technique in different cases and achieve different results, but one is true, this really helps. If you`re talking with a difficult person one-on-one, proper questions help you understand the true incentive of the person showing challenging behavior. On the other hand, if you face an attack from a difficult person when you’re in a group of colleagues, correct questions addressed to this person in response may quickly calm him or her down. For example, if someone is criticizing your idea unreasonably, ask him or her to explain why is it bad and let him suggest something different. Difficult people like to be in the center of public attention but only as long as they are in a vantage point.  When they need to become responsible for their words or deeds, they usually prefer to withdraw.

4. Use humor

Humor is a powerful weapon in any communication situation. This is also true for those cases when you’re dealing with difficult people on your projects. If you have enough talent to throw in a funny and a good joke in response to an attack of a difficult person, it is definitely for your advantage. First, it will reduce the tension and disarm your opponent. Second, it will make you look good in the eyes of the group. But make sure that the joke meets a number of criteria. It should be simple and clear for everyone and at the same time, it should not offend anybody. An inappropriate joke can only make things worse.

5. Seek the support of the team

If you are facing some confrontation with a difficult person during a meeting or another team activity and you see that this confrontation interferes with the goals of the team, you may ask for the support of other team members. You may always say that your discussion with the opponent is not productive and wastes other team members` time. Or, if you`re arguing on some points with your opponent, you may suggest that other team members should also think about the issue. It’s quite easy to confront an individual, but it’s much harder to confront the whole group. Although, use this technique with caution if you know that most of your team is in opposition to you or your opinion.

6. Understand the reasons for difficult behavior

All the techniques mentioned above are intended to reduce a sudden tension that came up during some team activity on your project, mostly, meetings. They are just treating symptoms, but do not eliminate the root cause of the problem. But even if you were able to calm down a challenging situation, later you should talk directly to the difficult person you confronted with and try to understand his or her incentives. Otherwise, you will keep facing these issues again and again and they will be ruining your work and personal life.  When you get to know the real reason for the challenging behavior of a difficult person, you will have enough information to design a strategy on how to deal with such a person in the long run. 

7. Come up with a long-term relationship strategy

If you succeed in understanding the reasons for the difficult behavior you faced, you may plan a long-term strategy for communication with that person. There may be a number of options. The best-case scenario is when you eventually understand that the challenging behavior is not meant to offend you and is just some specific trait of that person. If this peculiarity does not affect the team much, you may just get accustomed to it and ignore it. Another situation is when the reason for challenging behavior is that a particular person wants some changes. In this case, you may make some agreements and eliminate the issue. However, if the difficult behavior is something natural that can`t be changed, and you see that it affects the team negatively, it is better to let this person go. There definitely may be cases when it is better for you to leave.

How often do you face challenging behavior on your projects? How do you deal with it? Maybe you have any story to share in the comments.

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