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Dealing with Difficult People on the Project Team. Part 1.

Ever wondered why your project team isn’t working together as effectively as you had hoped? Perhaps it’s the people mix. About 10% of the typical workforce is classified as falling into the Difficult People category. Some people are surprised it’s so small. Sometimes it feels like they’re everywhere! What is a difficult person? Perhaps the better question is: what is a difficult person for you? Perhaps it’s someone who is disruptive. On the other hand, it might be someone who is too quiet and hard to draw out; not a good listener and always interrupts; someone who bullies and is very abrupt.

The effect they have on a project team or, indeed, on the organization varies greatly, but usually involves the following: Low morale, increased conflict, group attitude goes as their attitude goes, intimidation, insults, team demoralization, decreased productivity, rising costs, increasing project risks, need for additional resources, etc.

What happens to you when you deal with a Difficult Person? Everyone has a slightly different reaction, but some common reactions include a rise in blood pressure, racing heart, lump in the throat, “fight, flight, or freeze” syndrome, or getting red-in-the-face.

One thing you can be sure of: If you don’t do something about whatever it is that someone is doing that makes life difficult for you, you’ll continue to get more of it.

There are many types of difficult people. In general, they can be rolled into these main groups:

  • The Steamroller
    This is the bully of the group – always interrupting, insulting, and yelling. We all know these types.
  • The Sniper
    These are the folks who hide in the back of the room, always sniping – taking shots at everyone, constantly nit-picking back at you, sending out comments, etc. They always want to do this from “under cover.” If you call them on it they say, “Oh, I’m just kidding,” or, “Can’t ya take a joke?” or, “I didn’t say anything!” They always have a comment.
  • The “Can’t Say No” person.
    Will not say no to work. The problem is they won’t say no, they won’t say no, they won’t say no . . . and then they finally just collapse!
  • The Know-it-all
    Do I have to say anything else? Need I say more? They know it all!
  • The Complainer
    Chronic complainers! Chronic whiners! To them, life is one big complaint!
  • The Staller
    The Indecisive Staller. This is the person who just will not make a decision. They will not commit to anything; they are always stalling.

Time to Take Action!

No matter which one of these personality types is the difficult person for you, you must learn to effectively deal with them.

So that leads to the question: How do you go about it?

Dealing with the Steamroller

When dealing with a steamroller, also known as the verbal “big bully,” stay calm. Typically, they are trying to “rile you up,” wanting you to elevate your emotions to their level. Don’t let them do it. Keep eye contact with them. Remain assertive. Let them go on and on, let them unwind. Then when they spool down a bit, interrupt them!

When you interrupt them you will have the chance you need to become assertive. That’s when you pick up the ball. One effective approach is to use an approach that is close to Muhammad Ali’s Rope-A-Dope! Muhammad Ali was known to have the ability take a great many punches to his mid-section. He would lean against the ropes, and let his opponent “box himself out,” get tired. He would wait for his opportunity, and then, BAM! He would knock them out. In a similar fashion, you should do the same thing verbally when dealing with the steamroller. Allow them to verbally wear themselves out, and then, when you see your opportunity, BAM! You take your turn.

Call them by name, and then say, “OK, now wait a minute, I have something to say. I’ve been listening to you, now you listen to me.” You will start, and what will happen? They will interrupt! What should you do? Be assertive! Say, “Hey, I said wait a minute. I listened to you, now it’s my turn.” Don’t back down! That’s what they expect! Also remember to keep eye contact. Just don’t back down. You may not “win” the argument or discussion, but once you stand up to them, they typically will become your best buddy. It only takes one time! They may still bully other people on your team, but they won’t bully you any longer. By going toe to toe with them, you may have just earned their respect.

Dealing with the Sniper

Again, these are the folks who hide in the back of room, sending out comments, always sniping, taking shots at everyone, constantly nit-picking back at you. Think back to your high school classroom days. What would your teacher do with these guys? Most of the time, the teacher would call them out. For example, the teacher may say something like, “Excuse me, did you have something to say? Something to share with the entire class?” Of course they would rarely, if ever, stand up and say anything; they would always back down and say something like, “Oh no I was just kidding,” or, “No, I don’t have anything to share.”

This approach works most of the time. Call them out; don’t let them get away with it. Clarify: “Excuse me, but I thought I heard something in that comment. Do you have something to share with everyone in the meeting?” One word of caution: be careful. Most of the time they will stop their sniping behavior but, occasionally, they will shift gears and become the bully – the “Steamroller.” But now you know what to do with a bully. Simply switch tactics, do your own version of the rope-a-dope, wait for your opportunity and, when it’s time, seize the moment.

Dealing With the “Can’t Say No” Person

This is the person who has a hard time saying no, especially as it relates to work assignments. They will attempt to undertake any assignment, even those given to them by people other than their own boss.

Why would they do this? Some people really are afraid to say no. They are afraid to be seen as incompetent or unable to carry enough of the load. Some people simply do not know their limits, or worse, they ignore them.

In other situations, it is because the employee is a rookie on the team and doesn’t want to let the others down; for others it is a personality issue, or even the result of the culture they were raised in. In some cultures, saying no is highly discouraged. As a result, people raised in this environment have a hard time when it comes to balancing the work-load effectively.

In dealing with the “Can’t Say No” person, the first thing you want to do is to build a relationship with them. You need to earn their trust and get them to be comfortable with you. Then, let them know what you are concerned about.

Once you have built a good level of trust, you can begin by asking questions that are designed to help them understand that they are out of balance. Be careful, though, as they will often be very sensitive. In their mind, they are doing a really good thing. From their point of view, if they were not doing the work, it really would not get accomplished. Quite often though, even if they do manage to complete all of the work that they have taken on, the quality of that work will suffer.

Occasionally you will find the “Can’t Say No” person who is able to accomplish all the work with an acceptable, and even excellent, quality level. The problem here is that rarely will they be able to maintain that momentum, and they will eventually burn out. At that point, they will be of no use to the team, but more importantly, they will have done harm to themselves. Recovery from a true burnout stage is more than difficult. Our goal is to prevent the “Can’t Say No” person from ever reaching anything close to that stage.

There are several things that you, as the boss, can do that will be helpful.

You can make suggestions for alternatives; there may be many people who can do the work that they have taken on, but they will not see that. You can point out the obvious, but quite often you will need to become their work filter. You will tell them that they are only allowed to take on work assignments that are passed through you. No one is allowed to give them an assignment that does not come by your desk first. They will resist this, because they will feel it to be an embarrassment. They will try to stall you and put you off. Just be firm, and reassure them that things will be fine, but they must continue to trust you.

You will need to keep on top of them, continually getting agreement that this is the best approach. You need to be their sanity checker. You can do a workload histogram to show them exactly how much work they have been doing. This will show them exactly how much they have been out of balance. It’s almost like a 12-step program. They need to learn in baby steps that it’s okay to say no, at times, and the world really will continue. The work really will get done.

In the next Project Times, we will offer tips for dealing with the “Know it all,” the “Complainer,” and the “Staller.” In the meantime, in the words of Mohammed Ali, “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Just be sure to do it verbally, and only when appropriate!



Tim McClintock is an instructor with Global Knowledge Training LLC.This article was originally published in Global Knowledge’s Management in Motion e-newsletter. Global Knowledge ( delivers comprehensive hands-on project management, business analysis, ITIL, and professional skills training.

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