Managers achieve results through the people they manage at work. The results that managers achieve are therefore a reflection of their effectiveness in managing people.

As a management trainer, I have often been asked, “How can I deal with difficult people?”

My response is to challenge the assumptions contained within the question and to address a number of misconceptions.

Misconception 1: Managers do not “deal” with people

The use of terms such as “deal” are quite revealing about the psychology of the person asking the question.

To deal is to contract, to reach an arrangement, to trade or to undertake a transaction.

While all relationships are indeed some form of contract in which transactions take place, trade-offs are made and arrangements are agreed, if we perceive a relationship in such a way, it results in a “what’s in it for me?” mentality.

Managers deal with problems, they deal with issues and challenges, but they do not “deal” with people.

Misconception 2: Difficult employees

The term “difficult employee” is often used in the context of an underperforming team member or an individual who is behaving in a way that is counterproductive.

In my experience, it is rare for people to deliberately perform poorly at work; that is not their motivation.

Poor performance is usually the consequence of the absence of some knowledge, skills or understanding.

So-called “difficult employees” or “difficult people” have simply learnt a set of behaviours that they believe helps to protect them in certain situations.

Why is it that a certain employee is pleasant and helpful when socialising with friends, yet aggressive and disruptive at work? How can this be the same person?

The answer is that in one context, the employee understands what to do and what is expected when socialising with peers or network of friends.

In the other context, the same employee may be uncertain and lack the understanding, knowledge or skills and hence adopts a facade and displays certain behaviours to cover up these deficiencies.

Misconception 3: Managers manage employees

When managers perceive people as “employees”, “human resources” or, worse still, “problems” rather than as people and individuals, the nature of the relationship focuses on the transactional, the contractual or the “trade-offs”.

Transactions cannot be inspired; contracts cannot be motivated, and “trade-offs” cannot be trained and developed.

Managers need to adopt a people paradigm and not a “dealer” paradigm.     

Misconception 4: Asking “How?”

“How” is the wrong question to ask. A better question would be to ask “Why?”. Why are they adopting the specific behaviours that are causing the difficulties?

Before it is possible to influence their choice of behaviour, it is first necessary to understand why they adopted it in the first place.

Only when the root cause has been understood can you begin to explore the “how” question.

Develop, not deal

People will have learnt over time that certain behaviours help them to achieve their goals.

If their goal is to avoid having their lack of knowledge or understanding exposed, they may well have learnt to be aggressive, evasive or confrontational, which serves as a distraction technique.

Rather than admit to a weakness or to a fault, people often use a set of defensive behaviours — some might be a form of aggression such as sarcasm, or some form of withdrawal such as indifference or apathy.

When “dealing with problem people”, managers need to switch their focus to influencing behaviours.

With few exceptions, managers are looking for the person to either exhibit less of certain negative behaviours (for example, aggression, sarcasm or indifference) or more of others (cooperation, constructive dialogue or enthusiasm).

Managers need to learn to use coaching, delegation and feedback to help people develop and apply appropriate behaviours.         

There are many programmes in the market,  such as the CMI (Chartered Management Institute) courses, which can help managers to identify the gaps and boost their skills and knowledge to turn negative behaviours of difficult employees at the workplace into positive traits — which will eventually leading to a win-win situation to both sides, the growth of the individual and the company.

CMI is a UK-based accredited organisation that is responsible for setting standards in management and recognising excellence through the award of professional qualifications. The Chartered Management Institute Singapore (CMI Singapore), is the Singapore chapter of CMI.