Dealing With Difficult Personalities in the Workplace

By Sayge Coach Rachel Garrett

You know those days when you’re firing on all cylinders. You’ve had three brilliant ideas before 9:30 am and you’ve executed on all of them. You’re in the middle of patting yourself on the back when Bob walks over to your desk. Heart racing, palms sweating, expletives lining up in your brain for battle. Bob is one of the designated difficult personalities in the workplace. He’s not your boss, but he’s confrontational, dismissive, and aggressive. He leaves you feeling like a pile of poo underfoot after each interaction.

Sometimes Bob is a George or Julie or Mitch or Leslie, but no matter who this person is for you, it’s important to realize that whether you’re navigating one of these difficult personalities in the workplace right now, or you have in the past, Bob will try to throw you off your game at some point in your future, too. Now is exactly the right time to learn how to confidently step up your game with Bob and his counterparts.

5 Tips on How to Deal with Difficult Personalities in the Workplace

Here are some of the ways I turn my Bob interactions into opportunities that make me a stronger, more resilient leader:

Lead with empathy

Bob’s way of being—which sometimes includes being a total jerk—stems from his life experiences and events. If he needs to resort to this kind of behavior during his daily interactions, it’s safe to assume he may have gone through some hard things, or has not yet developed the self-awareness needed to nurture deep relationships.

While it’s not your job to fix these things, know that his behavior is not about you and understand that his projected overpowering strength comes from a place of vulnerability. Leading with empathy can help remind you that Bob is human and flawed, which in turn diffuses your interactions and minimizes the anxiety that can spark from those interactions on both ends.

Get energized

If you planned a meeting with Bob, do whatever you do to get your energy up to peak performance. One of my coaching mentors, who helped me prep for a meeting with a Julie, said, “You need to do whatever you do to show up as a fierce athlete on the field.” For me, this included a two mile sprint, listening to Sara Bareilles’s “Brave” at volume 9, and reminding myself of my badassness with a few powerful words.

When I showed up to my meeting with Julie, I didn’t sink into my seat and wait for the tirade. I matched her energy verbal punch-for-punch and I was amazed to see the dramatic shift in our dynamic. I didn’t give her a window to doubt, criticize, or second-guess. I saw respect in her eyes for the first time in our relationship. Think of the things that you do to get yourself psyched up for your top form. Many of my clients do Amy Cuddy’s Power Posing, come up with a mantra, dance it out to a song, exercise, visualize themselves as their superhero alter-ego (Hello, Sasha Fierce!) or whatever other quirky option fits their personalities.

Boundary up!

One of Bob’s special tricks is the sneak attack. He comes over to your cube for an unannounced, unscheduled visit to discuss something that you don’t currently have time to discuss. This is a dominating move that says, “My time is more important that yours” and “I need to have answers right now without giving you time to think, giving you little chance to succeed.” He’s standing and you’re still sitting, thus continuing the power dynamic he’s put in place. No time for a quick Power Posing session or even some jumping jacks before you step into the ring.

The first thing you must do is stand up. With this body language, you begin to reclaim your power. Then, it’s completely within your right to take a deep breath and say, “Bob, I’d like to give this the time it deserves and now is not that time. Let’s schedule a meeting to discuss this so we can come together with some thoughtful solutions.” This is just one example of the myriad of ways you can set boundaries with Bob. When you keep it professional and engage in interactions with him on your terms, you invite less of his antics into your working relationship.

Don’t take it personally, but seize the opportunity to learn

You didn’t install Bob’s buttons or program his behavior. If you take a step back, you’ll quickly notice that you’re not the only target. Take comfort in the realization that his choices are not about you. You’re confident in your professionalism and your ability to build relationships.

But we can all do better. Use your relationship with Bob as an opportunity to upgrade how you conduct yourself. What are you doing to invite his behavior or show that you will engage at his level? With tips 1-3, how can you stop escalating your interactions with Bob? How can you project the confidence that doesn’t allow you to be one of Bob’s many victims?

Celebrate small wins

Just as you will have empathy for Bob in this process, have some compassion for yourself as well. You’re learning to advocate for yourself. This takes practice and won’t happen overnight. When you stand up during a cube sneak attack or set up a brief in-person meeting after his explosive email (with 20 VIP players cc’d), instead of engaging in global thermo-email war, give yourself a mental high five! With each new confident action, you build up a portfolio of boss-ness that stacks the evidence against your internal doubts and fears.

While this approach is intended for colleagues and not bosses, the truth is, if Bob is your boss, much of this still applies. Boundaries may be trickier because, at the end of the day, you need to fall in line with the chain of command. That said, anyone who’s experienced a great leader knows that they have the generosity and respect to find comfort and growth in a relationship with boundaries. Continue to learn from your experience with Bob and keep energizing yourself—you can nail your work and be the star you know you are (no matter what Bob says).

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