Managing Difficult Personalities in the Workplace

I was asked by the team this week to identify key strategies in managing difficult personalities in the workplace. This is a fascinating topic we can all relate to, as we all work on a day-to-day basis with incredibly complex human beings who all have different personalities, motivations and values to us. This topic is quite relevant to me at the moment given I have recently joined a new work team (with the wonderful Left Field Consulting). Even in situations where you get along wonderfully with your team, there are still associated challenges and growth experiences, both at the beginning and throughout, in learning how best to manage workplace interactions and work best alongside others.

If asked “what is a difficult personality?” I am sure we would associate this term with difficult interpersonal interactions categorized by conflict, which leave us feeling deflated, frustrated, and above all confused about how it all went bottom-side up so quickly! This led me to my first question - is there really such a thing as a difficult personality which can be managed with a “one size fits all” approach?  

ImageI want you to think about a difficult person you have worked with in the past. Consider what made that relationship challenging or difficult to manage. We are likely to see a common theme emerge in that we didn’t feel we understood them, we had difficulty relating to them, and just couldn’t seem to understand their perspective! This led me to my first lightbulb moment – in reflecting on this interaction, it actually says more about me than it actually says about this “difficult personality”! Therefore, in answering my first question, there is no secret solution in managing difficult people – in fact, the best place to start is by understanding yourself1.

This is good news, as this means there are proactive things we can do to reduce potential conflict with that “difficult other” we are envisioning. The more we develop strategies in how to relate to others more effectively, understand others perspectives, and also understand ourselves and our own triggers, the easier managing these difficult encounters will be. For example, when organisational psychologists work with “high conflict” teams, often it boils down to a lack of communication and understanding of the others intentions and preferences. A first viable step to reducing this conflict would be to examine the personalities in the team, understand their work preferences and operating styles, and highlight as a team the commonalities and differences between team members. This increases self-awareness, awareness of others in the team, and encourages more mindful interactions.

Overall, there is a lot to be said for the power of insight in how we manage our interactions.  Understanding that we play a big role in this interaction can help us reframe our approach, and increase our feelings of control over the situation. Through the process of learning strategies to manage conflict with this person, we may also begin to appreciate that conflict can actually lead to positive outcomes if it is managed well. Increasing shared understanding, critical reevaluation of assumptions2, better decision quality and strategic planning3, and increased performance4, are all potential benefits of workplace conflict in teams who are open, resilient and willing to positively engage. In summary, let me provide you with some of our key strategies for managing difficult personalities (or rather, people very different from you!) in the workplace.


Strategy 1. Understand the roles of emotions

When our emotions go up, our ability to think critically drops (i.e., the Amygdala Hijack)5. If you feel that you are not able to clearly articulate yourself, and that you will be emotionally reactive, take time out where required. Calmly communicate that you would like some time to reflect on their point of view, and suggest a time for when you can next meet to continue the conversation. Exploring and understanding your own triggers, and what makes you nervous or anxious around having discussions involving conflict may also assist you in managing your own emotions.


Strategy 2. Focus on both parties interests

241aWhen people demonstrate high conflict behaviours, it is often because they feel a basic human need has been violated, and they are trying to gain back some control over the situation. Take a moment to consider what their interests are – their needs, desires, concerns and fears which underlie their perceptions of this interaction. Consider the outcome they are trying to achieve based on these interests. You could even directly ask them what these are, to provide you with some insight. Instead of focusing on maintaining power or control over the conversation, or asserting your rights and demands, try to focus on the mutual interests you both want to see occur6.


Strategy 3. Engage in some perspective taking

Consider the facts and what you know about the situation. Have you been using your subjective perceptions in interpreting their words and behaviours? Put yourself in the others persons shoes and break your initial assumptions. Breaking your assumptions requires you to consider other explanations for their words and behaviours (i.e., what if the opposite was true of what I think to be true?). Again, link back to trying to understand the interests they are wanting to protect in this interaction and how these could align with your own interests.  


Strategy 4. Utilize active listening skills

Recent neuropsychological research suggests perceiving active listening stimulates our positive emotional reappraisal processes7 – what a powerful strategy! Active listening is a communication technique which involves showing empathetic understanding. Key strategies are listening to the speaker, using positive and open body language, and paraphrasing what has been heard to check the speakers intended message. These strategies remind you to listen instead of talking over the person, and can help you communicate your understanding and willingness to shared problem solving. In formulating your own response, be clear as to what you are willing/able to do and what is out of your control and cannot be achieved, in order to find a middle ground and a way forward.


233aWhat we must keep in mind is that the above strategies won’t be as effective in managing those very difficult personalities in the workplace (approximately 6-8 % of the population)8. Such individuals could be considered toxic to the work environment due to the negative effects they have on others around them9. A toxic individual demonstrates a pattern of behaviour (i.e., bullying, manipulation) that is counterproductive to the working environment, resulting in destructive effects for other colleagues, teams, and the organisation10. Toxic employees thrive in a toxic environment, therefore a “hard line approach” by management and the organisation in proactively dealing with counterproductive behaviours needs to be undertaken. Employers have a duty of care to provide a psychologically and physiologically safe work environment for their employees11. This involves ensuring that there are established policies and procedures around managing destructive behaviours (i.e., clear boundaries), and a united proactive approach is taken by management and the organisation12. This communicates zero tolerance for toxic behaviours, allowing employees to feel supported and protected.

Also for consideration is that some individuals with a mental health condition may, at times, be unable to adapt their behaviour to suit changing work contexts, which could impact on them being perceived as a “difficult personality”. Connecting this person with a psychologist and support services would be an appropriate strategy (see Mental Health First Aid Guidelines for further reading13).

Want to develop or hone your skills in managing difficult conversations? See our upcoming professional development courses.


- Kaitlan Laurie, Intern




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  10. Kusy, M., & Holloway, E. (2009). Toxic workplace: Managing toxic personalities and their systems of power. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  11. Safe Work Australia. (2014). Preventing psychological injury under work health and safety laws fact sheet. Safe Work Australia. Retrieved from
  12. Cook, G. (2014). Managing very difficult workplace behaviour: Issues and tissues. AHEIA Conference Shaping Workplace Culture. Retrieved from
  13. Mental Health First Aid. (2014). Mental health first aid downloads. MHFA. Retrieved from