People & Human Resources

Disrespectful, moody and procrastination-prone: How to handle three types of difficult people

Eve Ash /

The quote “Hell is other people” is attributed to French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, from his 1944 play No Exit.  In the play, the protagonist discovers there’s no fire and brimstone in the afterlife, just the never-ending gaze (and reaction) of other people. We all know how emotionally debilitating that is.  Significantly (and rather belatedly) it’s now recognised poor workplace behaviour tends to be like a virus — sooner or later, everyone catches the germ.

We all handle difficult people in different ways, often resulting from how we have been brought up or learned from colleagues and managers. If you come from a background of lots of loud yelling and the venting of anger, when then blows over, you may not be troubled by the loud aggressive type. Or maybe you got sick of your moody family and this is the last behaviour you want to experience at work.

We are all different. We react differently. And people are difficult as a result of varying triggers. We should take into account:

  • Misunderstandings;
  • Differing expectations;
  • Mistakes or broken promises;
  • Personal pressures;
  • Mental health issues; and
  • Poor service, products and late delivery.

Maybe a difficult person is reacting to your moody, insensitive or patronising behaviour or actions.

Let’s be professional and respectful. You choose your mood and this will invariably help all difficult situations. Try to be:

  • Positive, calm and open;
  • Keen to help; and
  • Caring.

Now consider some strategies to manage particularly difficult people and their behaviours.

The procrastinator

This person is often disorganised, frequently failing (deliberately or otherwise) to realise they can’t be depended upon and causing major problems with deliverables. Tasks pile up, clients and meetings are deferred, yet there’s always an excuse. A University of Calgary meta-analysis some years ago revealed the procrastination phenomenon is actually increasing. Most of us understand when someone is experiencing hassles and is not performing at their best. But habitual unreliability requires prompt and astute handling.

Procrastination can be harmful to your health. It contributes to higher levels of stress and poor wellbeing, as well as feelings of guilt, shame or anxiety caused by delaying actions, late delivery and incomplete work. An inability to manage time and emotions may well be a self-regulation problem, caused by:

  • Fear of failure;
  • Perfectionism;
  • A temptation too great; or
  • Life imbalance.

Find out what’s troubling the procrastinator. It could be anything from unrealistic project demands to a colleague or client they’re emotionally allergic to. Rather than trying to enforce coping with the latter, why not agree to a change of duties and dealings, and see whether a situation improves? Break down and match up the job tasks with right people. Set meaningful personal deadlines.

Does a workplace have to be entirely inflexible about the way to get jobs done? Generally speaking, of course not.

Show preparedness to give someone the benefit of the doubt (provided they check in regularly with you in regard to what they’ve been asked to do) and the procrastination might magically clear up.

And never do what one manager did with a seemingly procrastinating employee: raising the spectre of compulsory ‘counselling’. The employee, unable to point out the manager’s controlling behaviour was making him miserable, construed the counselling as a threat, and resigned soon after. Instead of punishing ‘the late people’, reward ‘the early people’.

Give people support to develop ‘positive mindset scripts’ to commit to completion. Think:

  • ‘I can do it’;
  • ‘Keep going’; and
  • ‘I’m going to feel great when it’s done’.

Help the person find meaning — something positive and worthwhile about the task itself. Give team members a chance to show what they’re worth by being both flexible and clear it takes everyone’s contribution to ensure success.

The disrespectful person

People are a lot mouthier these days. While it used to be funny to hear standup comedians brazenly saying what many of us think, quite a few people today behave as though they’re on some permanent stage with the audience rolling in the aisles at every utterance. This goes way beyond ‘truth’, ‘humour’ or ‘cutting others down to size’. 

Disrespectful colleagues or managers engender a vicious circle, estimated to cost companies and organisations at least $US6 billion in staff turnover. However, respect is a mutual dividend that can only be earned. Demanding it doesn’t work, nor does the disrespectful person achieve much through their attitude. Occasional tactless remarks might not warrant snappy responses. 

If the giving and receiving of respect is becoming contested (and ruining the office environment for others), the concerned parties need to sit down and negotiate a way forward. Sometimes the fault lies with both.

Create a team or company culture that is civil, constructive and professional. If people are disrespectful, give them feedback. Bring in a third person whose opinion you both value and whose suggestions carry weight.

Motivate uncooperative people by turning resistance into assistance:

  • Ask open questions;
  • Build the relationship;
  • Identify unhelpful behaviours and aim to turn them around;
  • If the person is insecure or fearful, explain advantages;
  • Reinforce standards and agreements;
  • Discuss consequences if any;
  • Share positive goal ahead;
  • Acknowledge and reward; and
  • Don’t give in to your frustration, instead, use positive scripts.

What can be agreed is civil, constructive and professional behaviour is the only means of improving matters in the short-term  until deeper issues are brought to light and resolved. If it helps, bring in a third person whose opinion you both value and whose suggestions carry weight.

Remember, respect is two-way. It is earned. Demanding respect doesn’t work.

The moody person

Employees and managers are widely assorted ‘animals’ in the office zoo. There are wombats (solitary creatures who like to burrow into their mound) and meerkats (constantly peering to see who’s noticing them). Moody types tend to put out inky vibes and are not much fun to be around. 

You can ignore them, wait till their back mood passes, or make light of it. One colleague told me an auditor used to stare disapprovingly at her. Eventually, she borrowed a line from Get Smart (“gee, you’ve got a beautiful smile“) and he did grin. 

Don’t assume someone is weird and brooding for unhealthy reasons. It’s different when your manager is moody (think: unpredictable), as this causes employees to be wary and experience high levels of anxiety.

We are not all born with fabulous social skills — most are acquired, painfully, as we grow and meet people, and also when we move into different cultures.  Give moody people some emotional space, don’t take their behaviour personally, and offer a tactful ear (perhaps over lunch) if you sense they need to have a chat. 

There’s a lot to be said for consistency of demeanour and maintaining politeness and a collegiate atmosphere. It helps us all work better and deal with challenges.

The more I cover the topic of difficult people, the more examples I get! Keep sending them in.

Next week we will explore these types of difficult people: the needy, the controller and the aggressive types.

NOW READ: Know your strengths and weaknesses: Eight steps to self-awareness

NOW READ: Social butterflies are busy bees: How workplace friendships boost productivity

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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