3 Keys To Leading “Difficult People”

Before we dive in, I am concerned about casting individuals as being “difficult”.  Once we label someone as being “difficult”, it tends to colour our interaction with them.

A better approach is to think in terms of “challenging behaviours”.  When we focus attention on the behaviour we focus our discomfort on specifics. We identify issues that represent the challenge. That gives us a better chance of finding solutions and resolving the challenges.

Labels create barriers to effective communication and cooperation.

I suggest that we cull “difficult people” from our vocabulary and thinking. Instead, let us embrace the fact that we will encounter challenging behaviours in our interaction with others. We can identify those behaviours and take specific action to have them resolved.


On the issue of leading in the face of dominant behaviour, an important starting point is to recognize that at its core Dominance feeds on Intimidation and Submission.

What is not widely accepted is that submission can be self-inflicted (unforced error.)!

I allowed myself to be dominated by dogs who had no interest in me as I later realized when I finally developed the courage to walk past them to get back to my home.

It would be interesting to learn how many of you have been at the wrong end of dominant encounters. When you reflect on my experience with the dogs, can you accept that some were self-inflicted?

Weeding out self-inflicted domination is the first step towards the capacity to lead dominant personalities effectively.


The dog analogy is instructive.

Dominance is actually a style of behaviour and with it comes certain attitudes, mannerisms and actions.

One such mannerism is the equivalent of seemingly aggressive barking. That barking is not necessarily supported by a commitment or intention to bite. However, its intensity puts doubt in the mind of others enabling the barker to protect its position. The barking demeanour creates a feeling of intimidation in others.

Individuals who use Dominance as their preferred style of interacting with others may come across as aggressive, pushy and even threatening. It is deemed to be a part of their persona.

“Why are you shouting?” is received with genuine surprise. “Shouting, me?”

“Why are you angry?” is also not understood. “I am not angry. I am just being emphatic.”

It would be interesting to learn how many of you can or are willing to make a distinction between someone who is shouting and someone who is emphasizing a point.

In essence then, an important second step in leading dominant team members is to make the distinction between bark, bite and intention to bite. We identified weeding out self-induced domination as the first step.

This second step requires you to develop the capacity to identify when barking is not linked to biting or the intention to bite.

Yes…some barks are clear signals that biting is about to take place. Others are just a natural outflow of “barking” that appears intimidating but has no real animosity behind it.

The secret here is to look beyond tone and body language which complicate communication with dominant personalities. Work to distil the essence of what is taking place without the noise of their demeanour.

This is a challenging but fundamental mechanism for dealing effectively with dominant personalities.

The voice may be raised and there is animation but what are we dealing with at the core here?

Is there a request being made? Is it a reasonable request? Is there the hint of a threat?

Is there an issue that needs clarification?

Is there blustering taking place to distract from impending disciplinary action?

Keeping your focus on the core issue helps you to avoid being distracted by the noise of tone and body language.

You need to take that foundation principle into dealing with a dominant team member.


Engagement is the third step in quest to lead dominant team members more effectively:

Link their role to the vision, involve them and respect their contribution.

Being given instructions day after day wears thin with dominant personalities. Organizations bemoan high turnover and brain drain among valued staff but many fail to implement strategies to engage these individuals and keep them in the fold.

Engaging them in the bigger picture has the benefit of moving them from the THEY side of the WE | THEY workplace divide to being associated with or being a part of the WE.

Get the dominant team member to see themselves in a different role and context. Do that effectively and you will experience less push back and greater levels of cooperation.


Finally, a friendly suggestion.

Fighting fire with fire and head butting produce no winners in the long run. Punishment might drive the resistance underground but is more likely to be a drag on performance and team spirit.

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