Professor Zahir Irani: Important tips for managing those “difficult” personalities in your team

When an awkward clash erupts in your team, try to remember there is no such thing as “common sense” – only different perspectives

By Zahir Irani

27 Jan 2016

It's the mix of personalities that makes a team effective and fun to work in – and work a genuinely interesting place to be. But these differences also provide the greatest source of challenges for a manager: the opportunities for misunderstanding, confrontation and relationship breakdowns. They also carry the potential for that situation every leader dreads: a spiky and uncomfortable working environment that starts to grind everyone down. After all, clashes between personalities aren't just a problem for those directly involved but often mean ripples of stress and anxiety for everyone in a team, or even a whole department. 

Taking a lead in handling difficult situations and difficult people can be the hardest part of the management role. How to tackle those personal, awkward situations where there doesn't seem to be a rule book – situations that can deteriorate into embarrassing scenes for all to witness and hear about? They can become a major distraction where you end up only focused on the stars and the awkward squad, when the attention should actually be equally on the great majority of team members who get on with their work.

Fundamental to good handling of “difficult” personalities is to accept the differences between people: they are, after all, what make us unique. There are any number of management self-help books with typologies: the Tank (confrontational, angry, pushy), the Sniper (uses sarcasm and strategically-timed eye rolling), the Grenade (liable to explode into unfocused rants), the Know-it-all (low tolerance of contradiction), the Yes person (always say yes without thinking through the implications to them and others – and then becomes resentful). But these definitions aren't always helpful. They encourage stereotyping and the idea that certain kinds of people are always a problem.

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Managers should be open-minded about personalities and their differences: we are none of us just one thing or another, we're too complex for that. We come from different backgrounds, with different schooling and career experiences, and different basic attitudes to life, which all shape our varied expectations of work and ways of going about it. This is often demonstrated in the different approaches and attitudes between people who've always worked in the private sector and those in the public sector, for example. Equally, it could also be about the types of people working in particular government departments and their different cultures.

Don't assume you're right in your view of a situation and the other personalities involved are wrong – whether the situation involves you personally or you're observing a problem among colleagues. You shouldn't see things in terms of “common sense”, either. There's no such thing, only different perspectives. Don't fall into the trap of seeing a clash in black and white terms, as you end up just confirming your own standards and experiences rather than learning from others. 

What matters most is staying calm and professional, no matter how high the emotional temperature rises. Stick to thinking about what compromise would look like, and never make it about a winner because that usually means there is a loser. Going back to the previous example, as more private sector people move into public bodies, especially at higher levels, there can be sparks of confrontation between people used to a culture of competition and those more comfortable with collaboration. It doesn't have to be an issue, it's a case of being mindful of the difference in background and outlook and why that might be – and how it can be advantageous.

On a practical level, it's useful to collate straightforward and factual notes on specifically difficult situations or clashes in the team, small vignettes of what's happened to you personally or what you've seen happening. This means that when you need to give feedback or discuss a situation, you have something more reliable and tangible to talk about, something grounded and constructive, rather than a conversation dominated by emotional responses and memories that may have been built up into something more colourful or damaging to those involved. Use an informal process of mediation to makes sure that different views can be presented in a positive and supportive environment, where everyone feels listened to and respected and a sensible compromise is far more likely. Half-solutions and one-sided conversations are only likely to worsen problems and lead to a breakdown in the future.

If all else fails then managers need to follow the institutional processes. But keeping an open mind means there's less chance of needing to escalate a situation. Formal action changes the nature of any dispute into something far more stressful for everyone involved – staff, line managers and HR – and is more likely to unsettle whole teams. The formal response is also very difficult to reverse once it's been started. In general, dealing with people on an informal level, opening up conversations and finding common ground, helps to maintain a positive tone for the workplace, and is easier – and cheaper – as an approach.

There's no doubt that managing personal clashes can be terribly uncomfortable. Which makes it even more important for using as a learning experience, not one that you push to the back of your mind as soon as possible. Reflect on what worked and what didn't, and what you could do differently next time – even if it's only a lesson about being more tolerant of other personalities, and not making assumptions about who's being difficult.

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