The Lead Yourself First Blog

The Usual Suspects: Three Reasons Why Difficult People Win… And What You Can Do About It

The Usual Suspects: Three Reasons Why Difficult People Win... And What You Can Do About It

“She’s not happy unless everyone around her is panicked, nauseous or suicidal.” One of the unforgettable lines from Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) describing her boss, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”. Fortunately, Andy realized that she didn’t need to play her boss’s game, refused to be a doormat and ultimately rose above Miranda’s outrageously dysfunctional behavior. Not only did she gain her respect, she learned to respect herself, succeeded in detaching from the drama and set impenetrable boundaries. Sadly, the same cannot be said for many individuals who work with difficult people. How are they able to push every “hot” button with ease? Why do they win? And what can be done to minimize their negative impact on morale, productivity and workplace cultures?

In order to work effectively with difficult people, it is important to understand why they are able to frequently get away with their shenanigans, as well as learning and applying strategies to manage yourself in their presence.

Lack of accountability

The “usual suspects” have often been at the top of their game for years. They know how to manipulate people and situations to their advantage, flying under the radar because their co-workers and managers rarely (or never) call them out on their antics. The “patsy” justifies a lack of response because it’s easier to point the finger in the protagonists’ direction, blaming him or her for causing trouble, rather than taking the initiative and speaking up. In short, no one takes ownership and condoning the difficult behavior becomes the cultural norm.


The words of John E. Lewis, activist, are highly applicable in this situation: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” While accountability is everyone’s responsibility, we cannot control another person’s behavior. Hoping, wishing and expecting another person to change is an exercise in futility. However, we can always choose to manage ourselves by proactively addressing the issue at hand, rather than building long – term resentment and frustration.

You “buy in” and react

Have you ever noticed how easily a negativist can dictate a conversation? Misery loves company. A chronic complainer seizes the opportunity to let you know how awful things have become… and will no doubt continue to get worse, if you continue listening. Or the antagonist who masterfully belittles their “prey” by reducing their ideas to rubble, getting them to apologize for no reason, and ultimately humiliates them, either covertly or overtly. The aggressor subsequently basks in the afterglow with smug satisfaction.


Remember that all behavior (including ours) is learned. In both examples, the best strategy to counter difficult behaviour requires remaining objective by deflecting and disengaging from the emotion. When dealing with whiners, your best response is to say very little. The moment we agree with their position, we give permission for the negativism to continue. When confronting an antagonist, it is imperative not to play into his or her hands by becoming defensive. Avoid using blaming language, e.g. “you shouldn’t speak to me like that” and incorporate first person (“I”) statements instead:  “I want to find an amicable solution, as well as an optimum time to discuss this further.” If the difficult person persists, rinse and repeat, then politely exit.

Managers lack skill…and the will… to take action

Nothing brings down morale faster than managers who allow problems to fester. Highly engaged team members gradually become frustrated by the lack of action, which, they feel, is a sign of ineffective leadership. It’s up to leaders to create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their concerns before situations become unmanageable. When team members see no evidence of follow up on the part of the manager, it is no surprise that they become despondent, or worse, lose faith in their manager’s capacity to take charge and re-invigorate the atmosphere.


These situations could be avoided almost entirely if managers learned and applied essential communication practices to deal with issues expediently. By doing so, they would likely mitigate tension, improve morale and gain greater trust from their team.

There is little doubt that difficult people of every description have mastered the art of making many of us uncomfortable. However, when it comes to picking our battles and maintaining our dignity, the choice is ultimately ours.


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