How to Lead Difficult People (Especially When They Work For You)

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Great leadership is hard. Even harder: poor management.

So, imagine you’re manager, trying to lead a team whose members you haven’t chosen. Now, imagine that some of your employees are defensive, difficult people. They react badly to leadership and constructive criticism.

They’re known to get angry, or play the victim, or even break down and cry.

What do you do?

Ideally, you probably get rid of them–but let’s assume that decision is out of your hands. Writing in Harvard Business Review recently, Amy Jen Su examined ways to deal with these people as a boss, especially when you need to have difficult conversations. Here are the top six takeaways.

1. Control the environment.

This is the crucial element. If you’re concerned about how problem employees will react, then you need to control what it is that they’re reacting to. This means ensuring that the details of your conversation take place on your terms, not theirs.

For example, you choose the time to talk, not them; you choose the location, not them. Of course, you set the agenda. In fact, if there’s any ambiguity as to who initiated the conversation–you might consider postponing and moving it, just to send the correct signals.

Of course, you don’t want to be a bully. However, if you’ve already determined that an employee is likely to be difficult, you’ll be much more able to manage them by being proactive.

2. Begin before you begin.

In truth, the conversation begins for you long before it begins for the difficult employee.This is another reason why you want to control the timing. Certainly, you want to ensure you are completely prepared. If there are reports or records you will need to illustrate your points, you’ll want to ensure you’ve put them together and you know them inside out.

You also want to make sure that if your employee is likely to respond emotionally, you will have your emotions under control. Interestingly, that doesn’t always mean you have to be calm–but if you do raise your voice or let emotion creep in, you want to ensure that it’s intentional.

As Su puts it: “Sound preparation won’t stop the other person from reacting negatively, but it can help you to respond calmly and effectively when the emotions arise.”

3. Keep focused on the objective.

What’s the point of the meeting? It’s probably to provide feedback, and hopefully help the employee improve his or her performance so they can contribute to your team.

If there’s any part of you that thinks the point is to put the employee in his or her place, or score points–then check yourself. Postpone the discussion.

Su suggests reinforcing the positive purpose directly to the employee, peppering your speech with phrases like, “I need to share this with you because I want you to be successful here” or “I want to see you keep growing.”

4. Dealing with people who cry.

In the abstract, it seems like it might be easier to deal with someone who you expect will become emotional and cry, rather than someone whose emotion will manifest itself in anger. Crying sends a more submissive signal than anger; moreover, we’re human, and we have sympathy for people who are in pain.

Once again, the goal is to control the situation. Among the things you can do, Su suggests, are ensure that you hold the meeting at the end of the day, so the employee can leave afterward, and plan for a second meeting, after the person has calmed down.

Also, make sure you have tissues available. People cry, they get messy, they want a Kleenex. Also, having them “acknowledges the emotion and gives the other person a chance to pause and collect themselves,” she writes.

5. Don’t put up with rage or anger issues.

Legitimate anger is… well, it’s legitimate. However, it’s up to you to draw the lines. If you wind up in a situation where you are yelling back and exchanging harsh words, that means you’ve failed to plan adequately and control the situation.

Su suggests that “if the employee claims that yelling shows passion, let them know you appreciate the strength of their convictions but you can do without the yelling.”

Honestly, if you can do that you’re a much more patient person than I am. Remember that there’s almost never any justification in taking verbal abuse from a coworker–especially an employee.

6. Dealing with self-pitying victims

What about an employee who is defensive, has a slightly satisfying answer for everything, and who–once again–tries to take control of the conversation?

Don’t stand for it, suggests Kim Castelda, a senior vice president a software company called Bullhorn, to whom Su reached out for advice. She advises that blame-shifting like this is really intended to derail your conversation and prevent you from making the points you need to make.