Tips for Managing Difficult People


Tips for Managing Difficult PeopleCops are constantly asking for ways to deal with challenging employees and co-workers. Many truly want resolution, but here’s where things often go wrong. Wanting resolution quickly turns into a weekly bitch session. There’s nothing wrong with allowing someone to complain. In fact, this can be an excellent stress reliever, as long as you can trust the person you confide in. However, consistently allowing someone to complain without resolution brings about frustration in others.

Cops are problem-solvers, so others expect them to find resolution. But why is it so hard for some cops to resolve their interpersonal issues? Is it just easier to complain? Will confrontation make things worse? Or are they just being difficult?

Look in the mirror; are you the constant complainer? Or have you become the charity-case counselor? Do you have a weekly appointment listening to someone complain about something they refuse to change? This is not healthy for either of you. Problems arise when resolution becomes the furthest thing from their mind, and a bitch session has become a weekly appointment. It is important to remind these individuals that without proper resolution, this pain will never be adequately resolved. The last thing you want is to take on their stress.

Most difficult people are unaware of their actions. Many lack the proper tools to adequately address their issues. Cop or not, there are some officers who have it all together on the street, but put them in the department with a difficult co-worker, and watch how quickly things go south. Some revert to a parent-child relationship, explaining why they may not stand up for themselves. Others may get so upset that they lash out. The “I’ll get you before you get me” mentality. Then there are the complainers. They have a problem with everything and they never see their part in any of their problems.

Addressing what are often defined, as “difficult” people must occur in unison with the problematic behavior. Those who believe they are being targeted unfairly may become angry and resentful. Do not be naïve. This behavior is highly contagious. It will spread like wildfire and can negatively impact your department’s morale.

Though it is not necessary to know intimately the details of everyone’s life, it is necessary to be empathetic and understanding. How often do we jump to conclusions or assumptions about “difficult” people?  Is there something more to the story? Are you targeting this individual unfairly? Have they been labeled “difficult” for so long that they can be nothing but difficult? Oftentimes, difficult people are appeased in order to keep the peace. This may work momentarily, but not long term. Difficult people should never prosper from bad behavior. How often have we seen them reassigned, promoted, and even let go? But is the “real” problem being resolved or is the buck being passed?

Is it fair to place the burden of this difficult person on others? Sure, that would be an easy answer, but leaders are all about resolution and not passing the buck. Make no mistake, however, leaders are not magicians. These difficult people have to want to make the change. Some employees are just not reachable, whether by choice or action. Here are several tips for managing an dealing with difficult employees:

  1. Help the difficult individual see how their behaviors are negatively impacting their full potential.
  2. Work on setting goals that will improve interactions between others and monitor these interactions.
  3. Allow the individual adequate time to make changes. This behavior did not happen overnight, so don’t expect a miracle. However, if after providing adequate time the individual is not making consistent progress, it may be time to cut your losses (Taylor, 1999).

A small percentage of employees will garner a majority of our time. These are usually those seen as difficult.  But remember, difficult people are not necessarily difficult in the sense of being a pain, but rather include the following familiar personality types: The Know-It-Alls, The Passives, The Dictators, The Gripers, The “Yes” People, and The “No” People (Pryor, 2007). We can see how a complainer can become a real pain, but think about a passive. How dangerous can they become when they don’t provide adequate backup? Or the know-it-alls who refuse to follow directions and would rather work alone then to be part of the team. Any of these individuals can become problematic. However, there are ways to deal with these types of individuals.

  • Understand the difficult people in your life;
  • Know how to deal with difficult people;
  • Become less of a target for difficult people;
  • Work on bringing out the best in people (Pryor, 2007).

Trying harder to understand difficult people not only encourages better communication, but it also enables others to tolerate them more effectively. This does not mean that you should learn to tolerate such behavior, but at least tolerate it while they are working to make changes. Doing so may encourage positive behavior, while discouraging negative behaviors. Allow the co-worker to complain for a limited time and then cut off the conversation. Do this a little more each time. Make them look for resolution, and stop allowing them to eat up your time and sanity.

We must be able to recognize difficult people, because communication is not always face-to-face. Many times, problems in the office are not seen firsthand. Though it is important to be empathetic toward difficult people, everyone has the right to feel safe and secure in the workplace. And they have the right to be free of taking sides and feeling caught up in someone else’s drama. Use the steps above to make adjustments. Provide adequate time to meet goals.  Plan time to evaluate progress, but never allow difficult individuals to affect workplace morale or the livelihood of others.

Learn more about this article here:

Pryor, F. (2007). Dealing with difficult people: Techniques for handling difficult   

       people with tact and skill. Retrieved August 27, 2012, from

Taylor, B. (1999). Dealing with difficult people. Retrieved September 12, 2012, from

Dr. Olivia Johnson holds a master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Missouri, St. Louis and a doctorate in Organizational Leadership Management from the University of Phoenix – School of Advanced Studies. Perseverance in raising awareness to officer wellness resulted in her being named the Illinois State Representative for the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation. This role led to her being invited to speak at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit’s 2010 – Beyond Survival Toward Officer Wellness (BeSTOW) Symposium. Dr. Johnson is a veteran of the United States Air Force and a former police officer. She collaborates with several journals regarding law enforcement and military issues and is the expert in police leadership issues writer for Law Enforcement Today. Her services are contracted out by Crisis Systems Management to train military personnel worldwide on Critical Incident Peer Support (CIPS).

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