Dealing with Difficult Behavior

by John Ford

Conflict is inevitable in the workplace. However, that does not mean that we cannot work to prevent unproductive behavior that leads to conflict. Difficult behavior is a good example of an area where a difference can be made. Although it is easy to label people as difficult, the real focus should always be on the actual behavior. Dealing effectively with difficult behavior is a skill that can nip conflict in the bud.

Difficult behavior is essentially that which inhibits the performance of others. Left alone it will get worse, affect more people and continue to incur hidden costs for the organization in which it occurs. Most difficult behavior is accidental, but it can also be the result of intentional thought. Sometimes it is sporadic and takes us by surprise. At other times it is ongoing and forms patterns.

Difficult behavior takes many forms. It includes gossiping, going over your bosses head, foot dragging, ignoring orders, refusing to talk, being rude, yelling, ignoring, harassing, and much more.

At the core, most conflict is about needs that have not been satisfied-not just physical needs, but also psychological and procedural needs. Difficult behavior is often a result of psychological needs for control, recognition, affection, and respect.

In and of themselves there is nothing wrong with having these needs. Problems arise in the satisfaction of these needs when difficult behavior has been rewarded in the past. For example, if people always listen when we interrupt we will continue to use this as an effective strategy. We should try not to reward difficult behavior. Beyond reinforcement, if we don’t have the communication skills to let people know how we feel, or we loose it when things get emotionally charged, then difficult behavior can be expected.

It would be easy if there was some magical cure that could be applied to all difficult behavior. The fact that there is no panacea, does not mean that we are helpless and that there is nothing to be done. Even so, one shouldn’t expect instant results. Changing behavior takes tact and time.

The following ideas for dealing with difficult behavior are gleaned from Robert Bacal’s book-The Complete Idiots Guide to Dealing with Difficult Employees (CWL Publishing, 2000). Lets start with ideas that don’t work: ignoring the problem behavior despite its impact on performance, responding in kind, blaming rather than problem solving, labeling the person as difficult and trying to psychoanalyze.

If these are bad ideas what are things we can do that help?

1. Stay centered

When we loose our self-control and restraint the situation does not improve. In fact it is more likely to get worse. Decisions made in the heat of the moment are seldom the best, and lack the benefits of our creativity. Our challenge is to slow down, and resist a knee jerk reaction. Staying steady, stable and grounded gives us the strong foundation we need to take on the most difficult behavior.

When we indulge ourselves by taking it personally (forgetting that offense is 10% given and 90% taken) we start playing negative internal tapes in our head. We tell ourselves that the person is bad, unreliable, beyond reason. The danger is that these labels become self-fulfilling, and do not give any benefit of the doubt. Rather than putting our energy into problem solving we feel smug blaming the other. We forget that it takes two to make things worse.

2. Reality check

An important question to consider as soon as possible is whether the behavior is really causing performance problems. If it is not, and left alone things will not get worse, then leaving things often makes sense. As we reality check it is important to consider the impact of the behavior on others and not just ourselves.

3. Focus on behavior

This is the key to dealing with difficult behavior. As tempting as it is to focus on the person this should be avoided. By separating the person from the behavior it enables one-to paraphrase Fisher, Ury and Patton in their best seller “Getting to Yes”-to be hard on the problem and soft on the person.

4. Listen

Listening is widely acknowledged as a core communication skill that affects the ways we prevent and resolve conflict. When dealing with people whose behavior is getting to us we should make a special effort to hear the other person out. Even when you disagree! This enables you to validate the psychological needs of the other, and to let them know that you can imagine how they are feeling.

In addition to validation and empathy, asking open and closed questions, rephrasing and summarizing, and using “I Statements” are all key listening activities.

5. Give feedback

A common problem with difficult behavior is that the person is unaware that his or her behavior is causing a problem. At other times the extent of the impact is not comprehended. By giving timely feedback about specific behavior misunderstanding can be avoided and expectations clarified. A useful formula for giving feedback that deals with both emotions and facts, is the “I-Statement.” I feel frustrated when you interrupt me at our team meetings. It breaks my train of thought and I struggle getting started again. I would appreciate it if I could finish with what I am saying.”

6. Use performance management techniques

This is an important preventative technique. A common format is the yearly performance review. It should be used on an ongoing basis and whenever expectations are not clear. The goal is to make sure that responsibility is placed where it belongs. For example, with naysayers it is crucial that responsibility for involvement be returned.

Where there has been discussion about performance expectations, a physical record that documents the fact of the meeting, the content and any agreements should be generated.

This is a useful set of questions that can be used to guide an effective discussion:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we need to be?
  • How will we get there?
  • What do you need to do?
  • How can I help?

7. Third parties

Difficult behavior can be intentional, aggressive, sustained and extreme. When responsible talk does not work it make sense to seek help. Start with Human Resource managers. Be prepared to give a detailed briefing about the situation. In some situations the support of senior management may be necessary.

Beyond internal line support, consider using mediation if you think you and the other person can find a solution yourselves. Arbitration may make sense if a solution to a particular problem is needed quickly and you and the other person are struggling to communicate.

8. Formal authority

As a general rule, it makes sense to use power only as a last resort. When you use power you win and the other loses. More often than not, resentment and alienation accompany this action. Unacceptable behavior that does not change should be addressed as a disciplinary matter. Ideally an organization will describe behavioral expectations in a code, and specify how infractions will be dealt with. It is possible to retain the right to terminate at will while using a progressive disciplinary procedure. Following a fair procedure can go a long way to defend a charge of discrimination.

In addition to using the above techniques to prevent and resolve difficult behavior, we should be mindful of things we can do to limit the chances of being perceived as difficult ourselves. Matching our actions with our words, and our words, with our tone and body language is important. Incongruencies lead to suspicion and mistrust. Consistent decision making and achievable promises and commitments will also go a long way.


The reality is that we can all be difficult from time to time. Dealing with difficult behavior is not easy and so we often procrastinate. We do so at our own peril. Being proactive and engaging the person in a conversation about their behavior is the first step toward conflict prevention.