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Project Portfolio Management

A guide to working with difficult team members

Published By Team AdaptiveWork

For most people, workplace relationships are one of the most important aspects of career satisfaction. In fact, a recent study claims that positive relationships are the key to flourishing at work. We all want to feel a personal connection with our colleagues, and to feel that we can look to our co-workers for support and collaboration when we run into challenges.

You can work with difficult people and still create a productive work environment.

Unfortunately, not every team member can be a pleasure to work with. Some employees are cold and unapproachable, others may lack social skills or just be too busy to ‘have time for others’ in their hectic day. Or, where fellow workers are remote or in different time zones, it may just be a case of geographic distance that impedes collaboration. In most cases, however, there are ways to overcome these obstacles and create a productive working relationship for everyone involved. Let’s take a look at some tried and true approaches to working with and managing difficult people.

Address the Problem

The worst way to handle workplace conflict is to ignore it. As a project manager, it’s your responsibility to break down silos and create an environment in which team members can succeed, and this includes knowing how to deal with difficult people. Once you’ve identified problematic behavior on your team, set aside some time to discuss the issues with the employee privately. Try to describe the difficult behaviors in objective terms, and point out the negative effects they are having on the rest of the team. If you have ideas about the root of the problem (inadequate training, repetitive assignments), talk through them with the team member and see if you can find a solution that will work for everyone.

If geographic distance is the issue, there are ways to bridge the gap with video conferencing and technology solutions that foster collaboration and alignment.

Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up

Personality conflicts and competing priorities are one thing. But in these extreme cases, harassment and bullying are quite another. If you’re dealing with a team member who makes you or others feel personally threatened or unable to do your job, it’s time to take action. In these situations, it’s best not to confront the problematic team member yourself—that could create an even more volatile situation. Take your concerns to a senior manager or HR representative, and ask to be informed about the actions that are taken.

Keep Your Cool

Project managers set the tone for their teams. Even when a team member is getting under your skin, remember to stay calm and professional at all times. If team members see you growing angry or frustrated in response to a difficult employee, you can expect to see more of the same from everyone else. A calm demeanor can also remove some of the motivation for difficult employees who act out as a way of getting attention.

Look for an Underlying Cause

Some people simply have difficult personalities. Many others, however, exhibit problematic behavior at work due to some sort of external pressure. A larger problem may exist and uncovering it can prevent future issues and problems within an organization. When you’re dealing with difficult employees, look for patterns in their actions and see if you can find clues that might point to a cause. Team members who have been put in positions for which they were not prepared, for example, often come across as difficult or disruptive when they’re simply confused and worried about the quality of their work.

The workplace environment must be examined as well. Does it foster open communication that gives a voice to new ideas and team member feedback? Of course a hierarchical ‘my way or the highway’ leadership approach can stymie new ideas and curb innovation—but it can can also lead to even top performers becoming frustrated and no longer flourishing at the workplace. Studies have shown that investing in employees has a direct impact on the bottom line and customer satisfaction.

Paying attention to employees issues and taking a hard look at their root causes can make a huge difference to the health and performance of the business down the road.


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Written by Team AdaptiveWork