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managing difficult personalitiesConflict is a natural aspect of workplace dynamics, but it can quickly turn toxic if employees can’t find a way to work together. Managing difficult personalities in a way that is effective, compassionate, and respectful of differences is no easy task. Often, the source of ongoing discord isn’t a single situation but friction between personalities (either between peers or between a manager and her team). How can you help foster better behavior?

Here are our favorite tips for managing difficult personalities:

Understand different personality types.

There are many, many different types of personalities, and our programs are built upon the DiSC assessment. This allows team members to understand their own personality types and others they might come in contact with. This way, we can better identify organic preferences and tendencies but learn to separate them from behavior.

View “difficulties” as needs.

Often, fear and disappointment can manifest as difficult behavior. One personality might need to be with people in order to solve problems, while another might need solitude and quiet to think. If those two people have trouble working together, one or both of them might come across as difficult. The extrovert might seem loud and domineering, while the introvert might seem passive-aggressive and sullen. In another scenario, one personality might need independence and creativity to produce good work, while another requires more structure. If an employee is exhibiting difficult behavior, first try to understand what anxieties and needs are driving it. What’s actually going on?

Clearly address the problem. 

The workplace is no place for an elephant in the room. Management should develop a culture where free and open (yet respectful) communication is encouraged. If this culture exists, then it should be very easy to address conflict head-on. In private, ask about how things have been going for them and listen closely to the answer. Then address the behaviors, providing examples yet being careful not to frame those behaviors as part of the employee’s personality. “You’re overbearing” is a great way to fuel even more conflict; instead, use “I” statements to note what you’ve observed: “I notice that other people in the staff meeting don’t get to finish their contributions before you pitch in.” Finally, clearly state what behaviors need to change but also ask how you might be able to help them meet these benchmarks.

Look for ways to leverage difficulty

While this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, sometimes difficult behaviors can actually be converted to company assets. That person who constantly criticizes new ideas might benefit from some behavior counseling, but can also serve as a keen devil’s advocate on a team exploring new possibilities. (Setting and successfully meeting benchmarks along the way can also silence negative voices.) Setting team-based rewards for people who seem self-absorbed and competitive can motivate them to work better together with their peers.


Overall, managing difficult personalities can be a struggle, but in many cases it’s still possible. Confront issues with compassion and respect, putting employees in opportunities to minimize embarrassment or resentment about your counseling, yet remaining firm. Maintain documentation, express clear standards for behavior, and make accountability plans for achievement. You may not be able to make people change, but you can provide a clear and motivating roadmap for your employees to do so.

Employee Development Systems delivers results-oriented training programs that increase productivity, effectiveness, & performance.

Photo by zagraves via Flickr

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