Difficult People

by Suzanne Neville

What makes someone difficult?

Few people get out of bed in the morning with the express intention of being difficult at work.

If we can identify some of the elements that cause people to react in a negative, uncooperative or inappropriately challenging way, it can help us to build more effective relationships and waste less energy on defusing difficult situations.

There are a variety of factors that may spark off defensive behaviour in individuals and cause them to display their negative side.


The context in which people are working will have an impact on their behaviour. Some questions you might want to ask yourself about that difficult person are

  • Is there a good fit between the job and the individual?
  • Do they have the knowledge and skills they need to do the job?
  • Have there been organisational changes that have had an impact on them recently?
  • Have there been changes in the team that might have affected them?
  • Have they been asked to take on extra work or a different role?
  • How effective is communication in the team and is the individual getting all the information they need to do their work effectively?
  • Are they in information overload and unable to see the priorities?

Unfulfilled expectations

People come to work with expectations about how they will be treated and about how they will progress in the organisation. If the expectations on both sides are not clear, this can lead both to misunderstandings and to ‘difficult’ behaviour on the part of the employee.

  • Does the person know what is expected of them in their job?
  • Do they get regular feedback about their performance and behaviour that recognises both positive and negative aspects?
  • Do they have a personal development plan?
  • Are they clear about their own strengths and areas for development?
  • If expectations have been raised about reward, training or progression, have there been open honest conversations about what has to be done on both sides to meet those expectations?

For more on this, see the topic on Psychological Contracts.

Past experience

People bring baggage to their working relationships – attitudes that reflect how they were treated in the past, the amount of confidence they have in their own skills and knowledge, and their beliefs about themselves and other people. Some questions to ask are

  • How much support does this person need?
  • How much direction does this person need?
  • Are they getting the right combination of guidance and support?
  • How open and honest is your relationship with them?
  • Have you asked them for feedback about how you are working with them?

Differences in behavioural style

Sometimes, what is perceived as difficult behaviour is a manifestation of a difference in Behavioural styles. If the individual is frustrated about the organisation or team, or the way that they are communicated with, then their behavioural style may become exaggerated or defensive. Adapting to the individual’s behavioural style reduces frustration and can help to encourage a positive attitude to the team and the organisation. Ask yourself

  • Is the person more reflective or faster-paced than I am?
  • What level of detail do they prefer?
  • Do they like specific or general information?
  • Do they prefer to focus on tasks or relationships?
  • Do they like spontaneity and variety or do they dislike surprises?
  • Are they expressive or do they give little away about how they feel?

External factors

People do not leave their personal lives behind them when they come into work in the morning.

External situations may have an impact on their behaviour at work. Often, even if many family-friendly policies are in place, it is the actions of individual managers that have a real impact on the perceptions of the employee. An environment in which individuals feel that their manager is willing to be flexible when faced with an employee’s personal or family problems can have a positive effect on motivation and behaviour in the longer term.

  • How much do you know about your team members’ family and personal circumstances?
  • What do you know about their interests outside work?
  • Do your team members let you know if they are encountering family or personal problems which might affect them at work?
  • How alert are you to changes in behaviour or performance which may indicate external stress factors?