Managing Different and Difficult Personalities in the Workplace

Being responsible for people whether it be in the workplace or at home, can be incredibly challenging. At home, we have a deep affection for the people closest to us which creates a bond that should be unbreakable. In the workplace, however, being responsible for a person with a personality that you find challenging to manage, or having to deal with poor behaviour, and sometimes a deliberate bad attitude, makes us question our own ability, makes us feel sorry for ourselves, makes us dislike a person, and sometimes just want to give up and run away. All of which of course is the wrong reaction. I have had my fair share of experiences in the workplace where I have directly been responsible myself for navigating my way through managing many different personalities. But, also guiding others in managing different personalities, and difficult people.

I will always remember my very first time managing an employee who absolutely drained me, but who also made me so much stronger in my ability to manage and lead. She was very intelligent, she had a very strong personality and always made it very clear what she was unhappy with. She battled carrying out certain aspects of her responsibilities in one of her roles, and was not open to feedback in terms of her development areas. One day though I had a meeting to address some concerns with the entire team. This was done generally, without singling out anyone, and with examples provided of what performance concerns existed, and advice on what sources of information will assist in preventing the errors. This particular individual was not happy with this meeting. She took me on about expectations and having to do more. Despite being the manager and with the entire team observing, I let her have her say and allowed for an exchange to happen. I responded to every point she was contesting, until eventually she became so angry with my responses, she screamed at me saying that my problem was that I expected the same standards of others as I do of myself. In this moment I realised two things; that not only were my standards high, but that she felt my standards and expectations were unreasonable. I did two things; I asked why, and what she felt was wrong with having high standards, and improving the quality of work and the outcomes. She couldn’t answer either. My focus shifted back to the entire team who I then told what the standards and expectations meant for each member of the team, what it meant for the team as a collective, and ultimately what it meant for the organisation. As time went on, she continued to challenge me, but there was some sort of shift and an indication of some sort of respect and appreciation towards me. She made more of an effort to deal with what she was battling with, she took on board advice, and in the end succeeded. She was promoted several times. The journey towards getting there was also not easy. At one point I also had to demote her because position and power got the better of her. But, in just over a year, she worked her way back into the position again because she had learned a valuable lesson. And, her drive and determination was admirable. When I eventually moved on, I even put her forward for my position. For many years in the organisation, this individual would tell many of our new colleagues about her journey with me. What I valued most is that it was mostly all about the role I played in assisting her reach her potential, by enabling her to grow in a way she never thought was possible for her. The small impact on her professional journey that I seemingly had a part to play in, made every challenge and difficult moment or day with her for many years, worth it. Don’t just give up on people. Potential sometimes needs a guiding hand to help unlock it. It is all about how you do it.

Another time, I managed a lady about 10 years my senior. She had had a few managers in the organisation, and in an unfair way, she would be passed from one person to the next because she was known for a very bad attitude. She wasn’t rude but what made her difficult to manage was that she went through so many different moods, often from one hour to the next. Our working relationship was up and down for many years. I stuck with her though, until again I moved on. During this time I always created a formal space for her to just talk about where she was at, what she was feeling, and what she was thinking. Not only did this help her, but it helped me understand her, and in turn helped me cope in managing her. Eventually I sent her for coaching. Toward the end of her coaching journey, I was asked to meet with her and her coach. At that meeting, one of the things she spoke about was how she had this belief for a long time that what she did was not as important to me as it was to her. That her priorities were not given the urgency she felt it deserved. But that how she learned in her coaching journey that because I had two other departments to manage, my priorities and what was urgent to me would differ from hers. This I believe was such a breakthrough for her. I responded to this by explaining to her how I determine my priorities, so she could understand the thinking, planning and considerations that went into this. After this, our working relationship improved. I even had a ‘safe word’ for days when I felt she needed to be aware of a certain behaviour either with me or if I observed it with others. This word was merely “okay” uttered in a “by the way” tone, and only she and I knew what it meant. She would immediately become aware of her behaviour, and the most important thing was she wanted to be aware, and she wanted to do something about it. I felt absolutely honoured when she reached a big milestone birthday, and that I was one of the just 14 individuals she wanted to celebrate with her. She opened up her birthday speech that night by saying the people around the table were chosen to celebrate her special birthday with her because of the impact that they had made in her life.  It was such an honour for me to have been around that table.

The last experience I will share with you, is about a very young individual who has only in the recent years entered the workplace for the first time. She is confident, she knows she has a lot to offer, but is immature, and expects things to be given to her rather than her earning it. When she joined the team just over a year ago, I instantly saw her potential. It was often misplaced though, because I also felt that she wasn’t prepared to put in the effort or do anything extra. I also noticed that her behaviour was often draining the energy of everyone around her because she was so negative, both verbally and via her body language. It was upsetting to people around her, and offensive to others at times. In this situation and because it has been an up and down rollercoaster with so much effort on the part of her management -with her refusing to meet them halfway – my advice has been to stop putting so much effort into helping her achieve what she wants when she is not willing to work for it. All you can do is ensure you do whatever you can to get the results needed from the person, and focus the rest of your energy on someone who is willing to put in the effort, go the extra mile and is open to receiving feedback and advice on how to reach their potential.

Whilst this post could go on for days sharing experiences, I will end it here. My overall view is that as a manager, one needs to accept that you will be dealing with different personalities. I personally feel it a manager’s obligation to adapt to every member of the team’s personalities. To understand how to best get results out of an employee.

If you are a manager reading this, I hope that you have taken some inspiration and learning from my experiences. Don’t give up on the people you are responsible for until you are satisfied you have done everything you possibly could to get the best out of them. If you are not doing this, you are not effective in my view. To everyone reading this who is not their own boss, be more mindful of the challenges managers have, and the responsibility they take on, and think about what you do or say that if done differently, you could meet your manager halfway.

“Build trust, provide feedback and accept feedback, empathise, and engage with respect” – #adaptandbe

Until next time…

Yours in Adapting & Being

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