How to deal with difficult personalities in the workplace

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 7 December 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Throughout your career, you're likely to encounter people who are difficult to work with. This may be because of incompatibility between your personality and theirs or they might just be difficult in general. Knowing how to deal with difficult people is an important skill in the workplace, especially if you aspire to managerial or leadership roles. In this article, we talk about some difficult personalities that you might encounter and how you can deal with them.

Related: How to deal with difficult people at work: a guide

What are difficult personalities?

Difficult personalities are present in almost every working environment. These are individuals whose personalities aren't compatible with the majority of their coworkers. In many cases, the way they behave is not conducive to collaborative work, which is why they're difficult in the workplace. Their behaviour can demotivate colleagues, increase workplace conflicts and even hinder workflow. This can be particularly difficult if they're your supervisor or manager, although leading a team that contains a difficult individual can be equally challenging.

It's important to remember that responding by being difficult yourself is unlikely to solve the problem. Colleagues with challenging personalities typically aren't aware of how troublesome they are. They may think they're doing the right thing and are sincerely trying to help. The best way to address this problem is to understand their perspective and then help them become less difficult.

Different types of difficult personality

Difficult personalities come in many forms in the workplace. Knowing how to identify different types can help you to find ways of dealing with individuals and avoid unnecessary conflict. Some common types include:

Controlling personalities

Some individuals have a natural tendency to try and control as much as they can. In the workplace, this means that they often interfere in other people's work, take over tasks or correct or criticise colleagues' work. If they're a manager, they might also exhibit micromanaging behaviour, which is where a manager refuses to delegate and tries to manage every aspect of their team's work. In many cases, people become controlling because they lack trust in others and are afraid that they won't complete their work.

Reassurance is usually the best way to deal with controlling individuals. They want to know that you're going to do the work well, even without their involvement. If your manager is overly controlling, reassure them that you're capable of handling the task. You can periodically update them on your progress to reassure them further. Once you do this a few times, it may start to become easier. In other cases, the best way to deal with controlling behaviour is to thank them for trying to help, but firmly and politely decline.

Related: Guide to people management: steps and skills for success

Lazy personalities

Most workplaces have at least one lazy individual who tries to avoid work. These individuals might claim that their current workload is too high, so they try to delegate or otherwise shirk their responsibilities. They might also be late in submitting their work, arriving at the workplace and attending meetings. In many cases, these individuals find hard-working colleagues to befriend to help them avoid working. This kind of behaviour can be particularly difficult in a team, as their laziness can cause delays and necessitate greater effort from others to compensate.

Many lazy personalities you encounter in the workplace aren't inherently lazy, they just lack motivation. If you believe this to be the case, try to find ways of engaging them in their work. Different things motivate different people, so try to get to know them and discover how to approach them. A good way to start is to praise them openly whenever they complete a task on time. If motivation doesn't address the problem, it might be a good idea to speak with their supervisor, as it's unfair for one person's idleness to hinder the work of others.

Quiet personalities

This is not always a difficult personality type to deal with in the workplace, but individuals can be problematic if they're overly quiet. These individuals typically avoid engaging with others in the workplace, give minimal replies and generally ignore coworkers. They might frequently wear headphones to make it easier to ignore their colleagues, keep their office door shut or not make eye contact when talking to someone. The difficulty with these personalities is that they're hard to engage with and therefore to understand. It can be difficult to determine whether they lack motivation, dislike their colleagues or are just naturally nervous around others.

A good way of dealing with this is finding ways to engage them. Instead of speaking to them in hopes of them reciprocating, try to ask them genuine questions that require thoughtful answers. Quiet individuals often think a lot without sharing their thoughts. You can demonstrate an interest in their views by asking them serious questions and getting them to contribute. You can also try to get your colleagues to do the same. In many cases, it may take longer for a quiet individual to adapt to their working environment.

Related: 7 ways to communicate effectively at work

Narcissistic personalities

A narcissistic personality is a person who believes themselves to be important and worthy of constant praise and attention. They tend to focus primarily on themselves and can encounter difficulty when they're expected to understand and empathise with others. If a situation adversely affects a lot of people, a narcissist will be concerned first and foremost with how it affects them individually and spare little thought for the impact on others. They may also exhibit a tendency to brag about their accomplishments and will expect praise from others to confirm their opinion of themselves. They may even exaggerate their accomplishments to achieve this.

For these reasons, narcissists typically react defensively when they receive criticism. If you need to communicate a problem to a narcissistic coworker, try to offer the criticism in a constructive manner. It can help to praise their behaviour or performance before mentioning the weakness they need to address. If they don't receive the attention they feel they deserve, they're also likely to become moody and resentful and may start believing that their colleagues secretly resent them. Remember that narcissism typical stems from the individual's insecurities. Offering the reassurance they need can be an effective means to maintaining a productive working relationship.

Passive-aggressive personalities

Passive-aggressive behaviour is where an individual is ostensibly polite and calm but implicitly communicating frustration or other negative feelings. This personality type can be hard to spot, as they tend to be quite good at hiding their true intentions. These individuals may make unpleasant comments that can be quite hurtful, and then claim that you misunderstood them if you take offence. If someone offends them, they may find ways of getting revenge or reciprocating the offence, rather than speaking openly about their feelings.

With passive-aggressive individuals, it's important to avoid imitating their behaviour. These individuals may worry about expressing their true feelings and resort to passive-aggressive behaviour to protect themselves emotionally. If they make a hurtful comment, tell them openly that you didn't like it. If they say you misunderstood what they meant, tell them that while this may be true, language can still be hurtful. It's also a good idea to ask them how they feel and genuinely listen, as this can lead them to stop hiding their feelings behind sarcasm and other behaviours.

Related: How to mediate conflicts (with definitions and steps)

Tips for handling challenging personalities

Below is a list of additional tips that you can keep in mind when dealing with difficult personality types in the workplace:

  • Try to understand them: People with challenging personalities are usually dealing with their own problems and their behaviour might be a coping mechanism. Try to get to know them personally to determine if you can help them improve.

  • Seek constructive solutions**:** It can be tempting to treat these individuals in a hostile manner, but this rarely solves the problem. Speak to your coworkers and superiors and see if there's a constructive solution to the problem.

  • Use mentors**:** Difficult individuals may be new to the workplace and struggling to adapt. Using a mentor system for newer colleagues can make it easier for them to adjust to their new environment.

  • Speak with others**:** If you cannot find a solution to a difficult person's behaviour, it's a good idea to speak to others. In some cases, it might be best to speak to that person's supervisor, especially if their behaviour is regularly hindering the work or motivation of others.

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