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Dealing with Difficult People on the Project Team. Part 2.

In Part1 of this two-part article in the last Project Times, we learned that about 10% of the typical workforce is classified as falling into the Difficult People category. Some people are surprised it’s so little. Sometimes it feels like they are everywhere! What is a difficult person? Perhaps the better question is: what is a difficult person for you and what can you do about those people?

Let’s just take a quick look at the difficult types we identified in the first article, and consider the havoc they might play with your project team. As we said before, there are many types, but in general, they can be rolled into these main groups, the first three of which we dealt with in the earlier article:

  • The Steamroller
    This is the bully of the group – always interrupting, insulting, and yelling. We all know those types.
  • The Sniper
    These are the folks who hide in the back of 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
    They won’t 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!

In our previous article we discussed in detail how to deal with The Steamroller, The Sniper and The “Can’t Say No” person. Now let’s deal with the three final types we identified.

Dealing with the Know-It-All

In dealing with the Know-It-All, here are some bottom-line items to be aware of:

Typically, they have been around a long time, and they do know a lot. So, make sure you know your stuff, because if you don’t, they will point it out very quickly. Recognize it, and respect it, but show them that maybe their ideas aren’t always the right answer or the right way. The typical Know-It-All tends to be a bit of a bully as well. They have their idea, and they just won’t let it go. You can try saying things like, “That’s a really good point, but have you thought of this? What if this or that happens?” Basically, you need help them see the alternatives. Will they ever admit they are wrong? Typically, not. It’s like trying to catch a greased pig. Most of the time, it’s not going to happen.

If you find yourself dealing with a Know-It-All in a meeting, ignore the temptation to make them look bad. Do not alienate them. Throw an idea out there and let it sit for a minute. Sometimes they may actually come around to it, but quite often, they will want to spin it so that it will seem as if it were their idea. And you know what? That is okay sometimes. Occasionally, selling an idea someone else wants to take credit for, once in a while, is okay. Your job is done, and the elimination of conflict will be better in the long run.

Dealing with the Complainer

Understand that to them, life is one big complaint. Complainers typically come in one of two delicious flavors. The first type of Complainer really doesn’t care about solutions; they just want someone to listen to them. They will come into your office in the morning, and they will talk and talk and talk until you finally chase them out! Here’s what you can do. Listen for a while, and then move them to a problem-solving alliance. Acknowledge their feelings, deal with the emotions if necessary, but try to push them toward finding a problem-solving solution. You can say something like this, “Okay, I hear your dilemma. Let’s see if we can solve it.” The secret is.when you move into problem-solving, they will typically leave. Very quickly. They really don’t want to solve anything. They just want to complain!

With the second type of complainer, it’s a little bit different. These are the folks who complain because they are paralyzed – they really don’t know what to do. When you move to problem-solving, you really will help them. One thing to be careful of though: don’t facilitate their dependence on you, otherwise they will come back again and again for the very same issue or problem. As the saying goes, you can feed someone, or you can teach them to fish for themselves. If you fail to do that, it is now you who has an additional problem, one of time management. Learn to be upfront. Say, “Okay, I will show you this one time. Here’s a pen and a sheet of paper; I’m going to talk and you will take notes. I will show you this one time. I will stay here all day if necessary, but when we leave, I expect that you will really have ‘gotten it’. I expect that you will be able to do this for yourself after this conversation, so make sure to pay attention and ask as many questions as you need to understand.”

Use a tone that is gentle, yet firm at the same time. By having this conversation, you will actually have helped two people, you and them.

Dealing with the Staller

Aahh, the Indecisive Staller. They don’t want to upset anyone, which really means that they want to please everyone. In their mind, the way to accomplish this is to never make a decision, which ends up upsetting everyone! They don’t want to take a stand. Instead, they take the attitude that if they just leave the issue alone, it will go away. Yes, quite often it will go away, but only because someone else will have done the work, and now they’re mad too!

One way of helping them is to discuss the benefits of deciding. Talk about all the good that comes through getting off the fence and making a decision: work actually is accomplished, people are happy, morale will go up, projects will be able to move forward, and they get to continue drawing a paycheck! Another thing you can do is discuss a few options with them. This is basically the old salesman trek. Instead of saying, “Would you like to buy the vacuum cleaner today?,” you say, “Which of the vacuum cleaners will you be buying today, the red one or the blue one?” What you are doing is narrowing down their options, and forcing them to make a decision.

The Lesson: Take Action and Be Firm

From our short analysis of difficult people, one definite conclusion can be drawn. If you don’t do something about the difficult people in your life, you will simply continue to get more of their problematic behavior. Whether it is the Steamroller, the Sniper, they Can’t Say No person, the Know-It-All, the Complainer, or the Staller, you must take action. Be firm, but be gentle, and remember they are human, just like you. But after all, it’s a place of business, and work needs to be accomplished. And in the accomplishment of that work, sometimes the more difficult conversations need to take place.

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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 (


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