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Managing Difficult Behaviours in the Workplace

We’ve all encountered difficult or challenging behaviours in the workplace. Perhaps we have observed difficult behaviour demonstrated by our colleagues, perhaps our boss, or perhaps….even from ourselves at times if we are completely honest.

Negativity in the workplace can have very damaging effects on morale and productivity.

Below is a list of some negative behaviour “types” which can show up in the workplace. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

Negativity Types

1.       The Resisters--They resist anything different

2.       The Wobbler —They are constantly shifting moods and expect others to adjust to them

3.       The Gossipers--They spread rumors

4.       The Blamers—They are constantly blaming others

5.       The Victims—They believe people are out to get them

6.       The Stickers- They can’t let go, even things that happened years ago

7.       The Pessimists--They always expect the worst-case scenario

8.       The Exploders—They will blow over the slightest provocation

9.       The Complainers—They feel everything is wrong or will soon go wrong

  10.     The Self-Absorbed--They are constantly grabbing credit or attention

Can you think of any others?

Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Behaviours

These are just some (not all!) difficult behaviours and potential strategies for dealing with them:


Potential Strategies


- Aggressive or Hostile

 - Talks over people

- Uses intimidation





  • Give them some time to vent
  • Listen, breathe and remain calm
  • Recognize your own defensiveness
  • Acknowledge what they have said by paraphrasing. Ex. “I know you may think...”
  • Assertively express your opinion.  Eg “In my opinion, I think...”
  • Anticipate challenges and practice what to say in advance
  • Emphasise that while their point may be valid, others’ opinions must be equally heard and respected


Know it All

Always Right




  • Actively listen and test your understanding by paraphrasing. It shows respect for their expertise. Eg. “So what you’re saying is ...?”
  • Give honest credit. Eg. “You have a lot of experience in this area.”
  • State your views in a non-argumentative way and request input. This can help them consider alternative views. “I have a possible idea. Lets spend a few minutes going over it. I’d like to get your input.”  
  • If you must point out an error, ask for clarification with confidence. Eg.“How did you come to that conclusion?”
  • Resist asserting your own expert credentials. No one knows more than they do in their opinion.
  • Don’t be intimidated or let them take over the meeting.



Blames and Accuses Others




  • Listen attentively to their complaints. It allows them to:
    • let off steam
    • provide pertinent info
    • diminish powerlessness
  • Acknowledge by paraphrasing main points and checking perception of feelings. Eg. “So you feel ________ because ______.”
  • Don’t agree, it validates them as blameless.
  • Be prepared to interrupt politely but firmly
  • Ask specific questions and stick to the facts
  • Move to a problem -solving mode. If their complaint is job-related, determine whether they’re unable or unwilling to perform the required duties. Take appropriate action
  • If all else fails, ask them how they want the discussion to end and what end result they want.


Always expressing negativity

  • Before approaching them, have a few examples of negative behavior
  •  Listen briefly and acknowledge their perspective. Don’t agree or disagree. Eg.. “So its tough for you...”
  • Ask for positive alternatives “What could you do to make it better?’
  • State your own (more positive) perception. Eg. “My perception is a little different. I feel ...”
  • Remind pessimist of the group’s goals
  • Emphasise change is necessary and offer to help
  • Focus on their strong points
  • Acknowledge their accomplishments
  • Remain positive and end the conversation with a positive statement, “You can do it.”


- Blames their problems on others

- Fails to take responsibility

- Takes a disempowered perspective.

  • Practice active listening skills, feedback your understanding, and help clarify problems and tasks.
  • Focus on planning, prioritizing, and accomplishing short-term goals.
  • Facilitate discussion to assist in choosing a course of action. Ask for a solution.
  • Victims need to be recognized regularly for their efforts and successes.
  • Recognize them for taking responsibility.



- Always wanting to help others with their workload

- Struggles to say no and ends up falling behind on their own work

  • Accountability is important when working with a rescuer.
  • Emphasize and support following through with their commitments.
  • Improving time management can help them prioritize their tasks.
  • Assign more tasks if they have time.



- Doesn’t say much at all and keeps to themselves.

- Finds it difficult to express themselves

  • When meeting, set a time limit up front
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Do not fill in silence with your conversation
  • Wait calmly for a response. Comment on what’s happening if you receive no response. Eg. “Can you talk about what makes it difficult to talk? Are you concerned about my reaction?” or “I understand this is hard; it is important though.” or “What’s the conflict?” or “You look distressed.”
  •  If no response, state this is important and reschedule meeting.
  • When they open up, be attentive and watch your own impulse to talk.


Data supported by ©  Workers Assistance Program, Inc. 2005

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