People & Human Resources

Needy, controlling and aggressive: How to handle three types of difficult people

Eve Ash /

What a hot topic.

Everyone seems to be handling a difficult person — whether it is a staff member, team colleague, customer or their manager. Or they have a difficult person in their personal lives.

Certain types of difficult people affect us more than others. For example:

  • Angry, aggressive, abusive, bullying;
  • Moody, tired, depressed, teary;
  • Uncommitted, unmotivated, uninterested;
  • Uncaring, unthinking, unfair, unethical;
  • Possessive, demanding, clingy, selfish;
  • Biased, intolerant, racist;
  • Loud, rude, gossiping, doesn’t listen;
  • A person who puts you down;
  • Someone who takes credit for your work as if theirs; and
  • A person who cuts you off and doesn’t listen.

Last week I covered the procrastinator, the disrespectful and the moody. Today we look at the needy, the controller and the aggressive types.

Examine your mindset

The first step is always to consider your part in the equation. Are you making the situation more difficult because of what is going on in your head? If you think you are too busy, too tired, too frustrated or thinking any of the following, you are not going to be good at dealing with a difficult person:

  • ‘I’m sick of hearing her voice’;
  • ‘I just want to walk out’;
  • ‘I can’t stand the way he behaves’; and
  • ‘She drives me crazy.’

Your reactions and emotions may be causing a problem! Choose your helpful, open mood.

The needy type

At the outset, don’t confuse ‘needy’ with ‘needing help’. There’s a rather unpleasant ‘survival of the fittest’ mindset creeping into companies and bureaucracies, in part because with more DIY technologies at our fingertips, certain tasks can be done more quickly when you understand the software. But people come to jobs from a huge variety of backgrounds with differing levels of expertise and knowledge. 

If a person is asking lots of questions and having trouble working things out, don’t assume they’re needy. That person might just need help until things make sense. 

Show some patience and grace, and think back to a time when you’ve felt uncertain and unclear.

Build a relationship. Go out for a coffee or lunch together. Ask open questions about their world. You can:

  • Use empathy by being responsive to their lack of confidence;
  • Show acknowledgement and appreciation;
  • Encourage them with small wins, and reward small steps;
  • Give feedback on inappropriate demands; and
  • Offer coaching help with skills, maybe online language programs, and more direction if appropriate.

As with all staff you need to clarify expectations and set boundaries about your time. Politely remind them you have work to finish, defer a discussion until a later time, or direct the person to where they can most usefully obtain answers to questions. 

There needs to be management recognition of the importance of induction, or onboarding, enabling people to get on with their work. There should be at least one or two people at the company the needy person can speak to privately, should there really be a problem going on in that person’s life. Refer the person for counselling if their problem is severe.

It should never fall to the nicest, most caring person in the office to do all the emotional ‘lifting’ as this becomes a drain on their own productivity.

The controller

This behaviour usually accompanies some kind of gatekeeping role. Some people unfortunately let their position of relative power go straight to their head, swatting away queries or objections to what they’re up to. The controller contributes to inefficiencies by needlessly standing on ceremony and refusing to recognise how a team is required to operate.

The controller upsets people by micromanaging and using standover tactics that:

  • Increase frustration and reduce job satisfaction;
  • Stifle creativity; and
  • Go against adult learning principles.

They have a way of subtly undermining what you’re doing and can make it appear as though you’re in some way at fault. This can cause guilt and sleepless nights (for those in the controller’s cross-hairs). 

You can try to ignore the controller — see it as their anxieties. Change your mindset to no longer react. Perform your role magnificently, demonstrate results and the controller will be less likely to sit over you.

For the sake of some sanity, it’s recommended you remove (as much as possible) emotion in any exchanges and reflect back to the controller what they’re doing.

For example, the controller (probably loudly in front of the others) might say: ‘I see you’ve been doing (supposedly-unsanctioned-by-them) project, why?’ You can reply with: ‘Yes, I am. Good to see you’re taking such an interest in my work.’

If they persist, you might need to assertively give feedback about their disempowering micromanagement. Reconnect and discuss your working style. Clarify expectations.

Ask them to agree on what you need to achieve and by when, then ask that you be left to do the work unhindered. Ask why they are so controlling. Ask for flexibility.

Some polite but definite verbal ping-pong is sometimes necessary until the controller gets back in their box.  If they don’t stop — and if they’re your manager — be prepared to up the ante by noting the behaviours and seeking a third party to mediate the problem.

If senior management is sticking their fingers in their ears and your frustrations are building (as they will, few people can indefinitely put up with controllers), it might be best to look for another job.

The aggressive type

If you come from a background of lots of loud yelling and debate, and the venting of anger, which always blows over, you may not be troubled by the loud aggressive type.

But what are some effective strategies for these wannabe Underbelly types?

Stay calm and manage your emotions is the best advice. Breathe deeply before responding, maintain some kind of surface composure (despite the provocation), or calmly tell the person you will not tolerate being spoken to in an abusive way. 

A relationship manager had a marvellous response for her aggressive (woman) boss at a team meeting. The boss was disparagingly and repeatedly using the manager’s full name (which she happens to dislike). Instead of bridling, the relationship manager smiled. The boss then snapped: ‘What are you grinning about?’ snapped the boss. ‘I’ve never heard my name mentioned so often in such a short time,’ replied the manager. The boss bristled and asked: ‘You got a problem with that?’ ‘No, I think it’s funny,’ replied the clever relationship manager. Everyone smiled into their laps and lattes. The aggressive boss backed down (somewhat).

Some aggressive types can become dangerous. Recognise early warning signs and ask for help from someone in authority. You want to reduce risk. Minimise escalation. Say ‘I’m sorry you are so upset’. Don’t take it personally. Identify the issues and follow rules. If you can help, outline your suggestions to help. And most importantly: document, debrief, de-stress.

Use caution when dealing with aggressive types and keep a record.  Stick to facts when dealing with such people, and if it is a colleague (not a customer), explain how their behaviour detracts from worthwhile outcomes.

Stanford University professor and author Robert Sutton notes that the TCJ (total cost of a jerk) in companies is estimated to be at least $160,000 a year.  And places want to continue hiring such people? Obviously only when money doesn’t matter!

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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