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How Team of Leaders helps deal with difficult people

6 min read


Difficult people are everywhere. They’re in line in front of you at the bank, shopping with you in the supermarket, and next to you on the highway in rush hour.

In most circumstances, the best way to deal with the troublesome people around you is to ignore them, especially if they have little to no bearing on your life. Unfortunately, it’s not quite so easy to ignore the difficult people in the workplace.

Whether you work directly with challenging individuals or experience them in passing, few things are more frustrating than sharing a professional domain with individuals who are not an active, willing part of a team. As a hardworking employee, it can be very challenging to see a drain on the system in an area where productive team members are standard.

Identifying difficult people in the workplace

Difficult people come in many forms, all of which are counterproductive in a workplace setting. They may be lazy, late, slow or slackers, but the imposition they create in a professional environment can be troublesome, if not toxic. Rather than contributing to an endeavor, these individuals are a drain on resources and productivity, bringing the strong employees down to a troublesome level.

They tend to be negative, cynical and unwilling to take responsibility for job performance. They may also be critical of a company’s vision or of the positive work other employees are demonstrating.

Many leaders may find looking the other way to be the easiest solution in managing difficult people, but this is generally a poor strategy. In a workplace environment, even one difficult personality can negatively affect other team members, turning what should be a positive situation into one that may threaten the performance and productivity of the workforce in general.


Approaching solutions for difficult people

Identifying difficult people in the workplace is often quite straightforward, but working to transform a struggling team member may take an inspired approach.

The first instinct of many professionals may be to simply let these individuals go, cutting dead weight to create room for new up-and-comers. While this can be and often is an effective strategy, a better approach is to create an environment where people can flourish. That is because, while some difficult employees are born that way, many others are created by a work environment that stifles employee enthusiasm and creativity and frustrates them along the way, making them feel they are simply not valued by the organization.

The ideal scenario is to build teams of leaders where everyone is involved, engaged, committed, well developed and valued. Under this design, difficult people are not created; rather, they are elevated and often become productive employees who are leaders, because of the design under which they operate.

As a result, instead of devoting resources to get rid of them, the organization is working as an integrated unit to pull them up. Meanwhile, for the few remaining employees, if any, who remain difficult, they will become the responsibility of the team to deal with. It will no longer be management versus the employees. Everyone will be in it together to deal with a problem person.

Building a Team of Leaders

The Team of Leaders concept operates under the idea that working in a team is so much more than simply making peace with the people around you. Instead, the most effective team is made up of professionals with cultivated leadership qualities who embrace the opportunity to own their collective and personal success. Creating a team of leaders in your organization may not be simple, but it’s one of the most important strategies a company can implement.

To create a company culture that embraces those who work independently as effective team members, it is important to ensure every employee has a voice. Rather than simply delegating and communicating news from executives, you develop a work design that gives team members input on all key decisions affecting them. This design also provides them with a way to voice concerns, ideas and constructive criticisms. With an outlet through which frustrations can be addressed, it’s easier for difficult people to set their qualms aside.

In order for an individual to prove his leadership abilities, it is also important to provide opportunities for all individuals to exert authority. Whether this means allowing a team member to follow through on a suggestion or project, or rotating prestigious or powerful responsibilities, the only way an employee can see himself as a leader is to prove to himself that he can handle the challenge.

Transforming difficult employees

The transition from difficult person to effective team member does not happen overnight. The right design and implementation, however, can help formerly burdensome employees become enthusiastic and productive team members. By creating an employee culture that supports career development, allows each individual to contribute and emphasizes the importance of properly demonstrated authority, it’s much easier to facilitate an environment in which every team member is valued.

Difficult people are everywhere, and they aren’t going to go away any time soon. When you’re faced with difficult people in the workplace, however, it takes the right strategy to turn a difficulty into a success. By tailoring your work design and internal culture to cultivate a team of leaders within your organization, you and your employees can benefit from an environment designed to empower every member.

Stewart Liff is an HR and visual management expert and the president and CEO of the consulting company Stewart Liff & Associates. He has written articles for Government Executive Magazine, American Management Association, and Talent Management Association.  He recently co-authored a book with Paul W. Gustavson, “A Team of Leaders: Empowering every member to take Ownership, Demonstrate Initiative.” Liff’s other books include “Deliver Results,” “Seeing is Believing: How the New Art of Visual Management will Boost Performance throughout your Organization,” and “98 Opportunities to Improve Management in Government, The Complete Guide to Hiring and Firing Government Employees, Managing Your Government Career: Success Strategies That Work. ” Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Paul W. Gustavson is a leading expert in organizational design, author, speaker and consultant, as well as president of Organization Planning  & Design Inc., a California-based consulting firm. With over 30+ years of in-depth study high performance teams and design of work systems, Gustavson has devoted to helping creating great places for people to work. Connect with him on twitter or LinkedIn.

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