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Navigating the Impossible: How To Deal with Difficult People
Practical Tips and Strategies for Managing Challenging Personalities in the Workplace
As a product owner or manager, few things can derail a project faster than a toxic team member. We’ve all dealt with difficult coworkers - the controlling micromanager, the passive slacker, the stubborn egoist. When these challenging personalities emerge, our workdays become filled with frustration and conflict rather than productivity and innovation.
In this article, we’ll explore practical strategies to handle four common difficult personality types: the Resistant Controller, the Disengaged Slacker, the Overwhelmed Novice, and the Prideful Egoist. With the proper techniques, you can turn these stressful situations into opportunities for growth. You’ll learn to maintain your well-being while creating a positive environment where every team member can thrive and contribute. Let’s dive in!
Managing the Resistant and Controlling
Power-seeking teammates strive for control and can react negatively to any changes that seem to jeopardize their status. To gain cooperation from these resistant controllers, appeal to their need for influence. Give them ownership over sub-projects and make them feel valued in the decision-making process.
Example 1: Empowering Ownership.
A long-time team member, Carlos, felt threatened when a new supervisor was assigned to his department. The product manager brought Carlos in early to discuss the organizational changes. She asked for his input on the best way to implement the transition. Carlos appreciated voicing his concerns, and the product manager gave him the lead role in several planning meetings. This gave Carlos a sense of control over the changes, which increased his buy-in.
Example 2: Collaborative Decision-Making.
When long-time team member Amanda learned she would begin reporting to a new manager, she became distraught and resistant to the change. The product manager met with Amanda one-on-one to understand her concerns about losing autonomy. He involved Amanda in planning the transition, asking for her input on the best way to collaborate with the new manager. The product manager also highlighted how the organizational shift would allow their team to gain more cross-functional insights. The product manager gained her buy-in by showing Amanda that her perspective mattered.
Example 3: Empowering Through Delegation.
Project leader Janet was used to controlling every aspect of her projects. When the product manager suggested Janet delegate some tasks to her team members, she resisted letting go. The product manager worked closely with Janet to outline which tasks were reasonable to delegate based on her team’s strengths. He also set up a system for Janet to regularly provide feedback and praise to her team when delegated tasks were complete. Within a few weeks, Janet became more comfortable letting the team take ownership of pieces of the project, reducing her workload and increasing productivity.
Motivating the Passive and Unengaged
Laziness often arises from fear of failure or avoidance of extra work. To motivate disengaged slackers, connect their contributions to rewards and highlight how new tools or processes will make their jobs easier. Provide support to set them up for success.
Example 1: Personalized Support.
The product team recently rolled out a new content management system (CMS), but writer Max resisted learning the new platform. He preferred sticking with familiar tools rather than tackling the training on the new CMS. The product manager empathized with Max’s frustration about the forced change. She offered personalized coaching sessions to help Max get up to speed. His first article published through the new CMS was featured front and center in the company newsletter. Public praise and ongoing support motivated Max to keep honing his skills on the platform.
Example 2: Demonstrating Value.
When project management software Jira was implemented, developer Susan groaned about having to learn yet another new system. The product manager sat down with Susan to show how Jira could save her time on status reports and task tracking. He offered to attend the first few Jira training sessions with Susan so she didn’t have to figure it out alone. After a month of consistent use, Susan’s productivity rose sharply thanks to streamlined task management in Jira.
Example 3: Aligning with Goals.
The team lead Dev was frustrated when new compliance procedures were added to his responsibilities. He complained that he was already stretched thin. The product manager validated Dev’s concerns and worked to lighten his workload in other areas, so he had the bandwidth for compliance. She also highlighted how taking on more strategic projects would help position Dev for advancement. With support clearing his plate and encouragement framing the opportunity, Dev embraced the new challenges.
Coaching the Overwhelmed and Inexperienced
Some difficult team members simply need more knowledge and skills for their roles. Don’t write them off as lost causes! With training and mentorship, these overwhelmed novices can significantly improve. Use clear instructions, be patient, and focus on developing their talents.
Example 1: Guided Delegation When new team lead Jason struggled to delegate tasks effectively, the product manager stepped in to coach him. She helped Jason assess his team’s strengths and encouraged assigning tasks based on skill sets. The product manager also let Jason shadow her during meetings to model effective delegation techniques. Through consistent mentoring, Jason became adept at distributing workloads and empowering his teammates with more responsibility.
Example 2: Simplified Learning.
Engineer Liam needed help grasping the intricacies of a new microservices architecture. The product manager organized a dedicated training session using analogies and diagrams to explain the concepts simply. He encouraged Liam to take detailed notes and even roleplayed potential client questions so Liam could practice explaining the architecture clearly. The extra support helped Liam gain full competence with the challenging technical ideas.
Example 3: Strengthening Expertise.
When project lead Mae took on managing a significant enterprise initiative, she needed to gain experience with projects of that scale. The product manager provided hands-on guidance to strengthen Mae’s project management expertise. She taught tools and techniques for developing detailed project plans, communicating with stakeholders, and anticipating risks. With regular mentoring check-ins, Mae soon gained the skills to steer the complex, high-profile project successfully.
Channeling the Prideful Egoist
Attention-seeking egoists prioritize their own ideas above all else. To cooperate with these stubborn colleagues, make them feel valued by soliciting their opinions and showing how their contributions positively impact the team.
Example 1: Valuing Input Ava refused to collaborate on a new product roadmap because it differed from her vision. When the product team needed to pivot strategies, designer Ava pushed hard for her original product roadmap. The product manager recognized Ava’s passion and scheduled an open brainstorming session. He actively asked for Ava’s perspective on the proposed changes. When they incorporated aspects of Ava’s initial roadmap into the revised version, she felt heard and was more open to changes moving forward.
Example 2: Acknowledging Insights A senior engineer, Mark, often shot down other teammates’ suggestions if they differed from his ideas. To encourage more open collaboration, the product manager made sure to loop Mark into brainstorming sessions. When Mark contributed valuable points, the product manager praised his insights in front of the wider team. Over time, Mark became more receptive to ideas that challenged his own.
Example 3: Recognizing Leadership As head of engineering, Lisa tended to oppose any product changes she hadn’t led. When the product roadmap needed redirection, the PM scheduled several working sessions with Lisa. He incorporated elements of Lisa’s plan she felt strongly about. The PM also publicly praised Lisa’s leadership after she collaborated on implementing the changes. Linking the roadmap tweaks back to larger company goals also secured Lisa’s support.
While each difficult person may require a different approach, there are some general strategies that product owners and managers can use to deal with difficult people without burning out or creating ulcers:
1. Understand their perspective: Understand difficult people’s concerns, motivations, and limitations. Listen actively, ask open-ended questions, and empathize with their situation.
2. Communicate clearly: Use simple language, clear expectations, and assertive communication to convey your message. Avoid using passive-aggressive language or making assumptions about others’ intentions.
3. Involve them in decision-making: Show how their input and ideas can contribute to the project’s success. Involve them in decision-making, give them ownership over their tasks, and recognize their contributions.
4. Support and resources: Provide training, coaching, and mentorship to help them improve their skills or manage their workload. Provide resources such as software tools or additional team members to help them succeed.
5. Set boundaries: Establish clear expectations and consequences for unacceptable or counterproductive behavior. Set boundaries for your time and energy, and practice self-care to prevent burnout.
What to do when none of the tips help?
Despite the best efforts of product owners and managers, there may be situations where none of the tips mentioned above seem to work. In such cases, stepping back and reassessing the situation is essential.
Here are some additional strategies to consider:
1. Seek feedback: Talk to colleagues or other stakeholders for their perspectives. They may have insights or suggestions that you had not considered before.
2. Consider mediation: If the difficult person is causing significant disruptions to the team or project, consider bringing in a neutral third party to mediate the situation. This could be an HR representative, a consultant, or a coach.
3. Focus on the big picture: Remember that the ultimate goal is to deliver a successful project. Focus on the big picture, and avoid being bogged down by difficult personalities or interpersonal conflicts.
4. Consider reassignment: If all else fails, consider reassigning the problematic person to another project or team. This should be a last resort, but it may be required to protect the project’s success and the team’s well-being.
Dealing with difficult coworkers is inevitable, but you have the power to turn these situations into opportunities for growth. Don’t avoid the challenge—lean into it. Identify which strategies would work best with the difficult people in your workplace. Listen to understand their perspectives. Involve them in solutions and provide support tailored to their needs. Have candid (but compassionate) conversations when boundaries must be set. Seek feedback from others when you’re unsure of the best approach.
Remember to respect your limits and never accept abusive behavior from others. Stay focused on the big picture and your end goals. Don’t let difficult personalities derail your projects or poison your workplace. Keep communicating, demonstrating empathy, and finding creative ways to bring out the best in everyone.
The skills you gain in dealing with workplace challenges will serve you throughout your career. You have what it takes to navigate tricky personalities. Have confidence in your ability to transform discord into cooperation. Your leadership will empower those around you to thrive. The reward will be a positive team culture welcoming diverse perspectives and creativity.
So embrace the difficulties that come your way—they are gifts that will help you grow. Move forward with purpose and patience. You’ve got this!
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