Managing Difficult People

I have been managing people for over 15 years and I thought I would provide some advice on how to manage difficult people. This post had been stuck in my drafts for about four months and I thought it was time to finish the post.

I have had two people in my career I would consider the most difficult to manage. Both are very brilliant people and both are friends, but they were also difficult to manage. They could both frustrate me at times but at other times I was amazed at what they could accomplish.

I believe that most brilliant people are difficult to manage. Brilliant people typically don't like rules and they also believe they are smarter than you. I also have found that brilliance can lead to poor habits or blind spots, which is what makes them difficult to manage.

Let's discuss how these two could be brilliant but at the same time difficult to manage.

The first person was a great consulting engineer, he could solve any problem in front of him if he wanted to. He was also great with clients if he wanted to be. But, he was terrible at entering his time so it could be billed. In fact, he was routinely four months behind on his time entry. That is a problem for a number of reasons, you could not bill the client, you tend to forget some of the work you performed, so that is just lost time and lost money. Finally, some clients would refuse to pay a bill that had work on the invoice over four months old. You could talk to him about it and it would improve for a few months, but it would always revert back to the old behavior. You could even tie it to compensation, but that did not fix the issue. I discovered much later that was also an issue at his prior employer.

I was still learning how to manage at the time, and I allowed this behavior for longer than I should have. Had I dealt with it right away, it more than likely not have been an issue. I also did not have expectations properly documented when he first started, which was also an issue. I left the company so I did not have to continue to manage this person. Had I stayed he probably would have been fired at some point. If you are unwilling to bill your time, it makes you a drain on the company and no matter how brilliant you are, you need to go.

His second issue is he did not work well with people he though where not intelligent. When working as an IT consultant, you are going to run into all types of IT administrators and managers. Some of them are very bright and some not so much. At JSO Technology we had one particular client that he had no respect for. That led to him not doing a great job or leaving work undone at the client and my business partner and I had to clean up the mess.  To be fair, the client was given steps to fix or tasks to complete and for the most part, they were never completed. The lesson here is don't send him out to that client sometimes personalities just clash. Also have a conversation to let the person know the behavior is not acceptable, which is something I never did.

I think the most flustering thing was how intelligent he was and the problems he could solve, but he would pick and choose the problems he wanted to solve. I saw this dude solve problems people with more credentials and more experience could never resolve. He was probably one of the best troubleshooters and creative problems solvers I have ever seen. But he could also be incredibly lazy at times. If the problem did not interest him, he would take forever to solve it or not solve it at all. He also at times would just dial it in, doing the bare minimum to get the job completed.

Some issues you just can't solve and if someone is not interested in something no amount of coaching or motivating talks are going to help. The lesson here is understand the strengths and weakness of the person you are managing and make sure you are putting him in situations that he will be successful.

The second difficult person is similar in some ways but different in others.

He is highly intelligent and has a passion for technology and create brilliant solutions to resolve problems. He also can be very creative when implementing new technology. What that person struggled with is when someone else came up with a brilliant solution and it was not his. He would shoot the idea down or crap all over it. Since this person happened to be a supervisor over other engineers, he could kill innovative ideas very quickly. If he was challenged it would lead to nasty arguments in meetings or he would pout like a two year old.  This created resentment among the people he supervised and it lead to half baked solutions at times.

He also had a tendency to not always tell you the entire story, so you would be dealing with an issue or troubleshooting a problem without all the facts. You could waste hours attempting to fix something or addressing an issue that did not exist, making me or others look stupid.

This person also liked to point out when others in his group had issues and would call up the director to let him know an issue exists. When his team had an issue, it was like pulling teeth to get the issue on the table.

He would see a small issues and magnify them into big issues,  I call  this chicken little mentality. He would display chicken little mentality quite often, which can be trying as you are always facing some issue in Information Technology and they can't all be major issues, or you will drive yourself crazy. He would also get this team worked up. It would take a lot of management time to settle him and his team down. To this day I still don't understand how he selected the issues he decided to make a big deal vs issues that didn't matter. My best advise when you see something like this brewing, call the person to claim him down and make a plan to fix the issue. That will deflate the sky is falling mentality and give the person something to focus on.

What they both had in common is a tendency to blame others for issues they caused or attempt to deflect to another issue, taking the heat off of them.

They both could be brilliant and motivated some days and entirely lazy and disruptive other days. Both when challenged in the wrong way would shutdown and would not take the input you provided.

So how do you address some of these issues?

Make sure you set the proper expectations right way. If you don't then you are part of the problem it is on you as you allowed the difficult/bad behavior.

When having a difficult conversation or dealing with issues with difficult people, don't preach to them. Ask questions to find out why they are behaving the way they are, you will discover that they will be more engaged and the conversation will be much more productive.

If they are unwilling to bill time, they need to go. That is my advice as a former business owner of an IT Consulting company

I found the best way to handle some of the problems is to have an open and honest conversation about the issues at hand and make sure you have valid examples of the behavior that is unacceptable and that you would like changed. You also can't address all issues at once, so take the worst behavior or issue first and get it addressed. Then move on to the next biggest issue. Also don't let them blame others for their difficult or bad behavior, make sure they know it is their responsibility to fix.

You will need to have frequent meeting with the difficult person and watch and see if the issue continues to come up. If it does call the person out on it. But when you call them out, do it in private not in public.

Don't wait for a review to bring up issues address them right away. Most reviews are yearly and if you wait a year to address issues, you will never address the issue or you will just end up firing the person as they will never improve.

One might ask why put up with difficult people? I feel that no one is perfect and everyone has flaws. I also feel that very few people take an interest in addressing issues with the people they manage. It is easier to complain/bitch about the person or how difficult they are instead of addressing the issue.  I also believe that most difficult people who also are intelligent provide a lot of value and are great at solving problems and finding solutions.  

I have also discovered that difficult people are also insecure (Some are just plain jerks. If you are dealing with a jerk, get them out of the environment ASAP) which leads to some of the behavior's I have discussed in this post. Be mindful of that when you challenge them, if you hit on an insecure area, they will be very defensive.

Be aware the difficult and brilliant people are always going to suck up more of your management time. As long as they are providing value, you can deal with the behavior and the extra suck on your time. If not, then you need to work with HR and coach them out. The worst thing you can do is complain about the issue and do nothing about it.

I believe that all of us have our issues and you are not perfect. Just think about if you would want to manage yourself (I sure wouldn't. My wife tells me all the time that she would not want to manage me). So take that into account, you are not a peach either so give the difficult person a little bit of leeway. You need to remember that some people can work on/change some of their personality, but most people don't and won't. Most do not reflect on their behavior and how it affects others or are just blind to what they are doing.

You chose to become a manager and with that comes the responsibility to manage all of your people including the difficult ones. You are always going to have a difficult person to manage. How you handle yourself and how you handle dealing with the issues they create is going to be important. I guess if you don't like it you probably should not be a manager. I have had some very good and very poor managers over the years. The good ones always seemed to care about my personal well-being and held me accountable. The poor ones seemed to care more about how I could help them or make them look better and never seemed to care about my personal well-being. Be a manager who cares.

This post is much longer than I thought it would be. I hope this helps others who are managing difficult people or at least let others know they are not along. If you have any comments or feedback about this topic, feel free to reach out to me.

To the two people I referenced in this post, I think you are both brilliant and I glad to call you my friends. You did not make it easy for me to manage either of you, but by being difficult you taught me a lot and helped me reflect on myself and how I behave. That is priceless.

TBJ Consulting

TBJ Consulting