How to Deal With REALLY Difficult People at Work

Whenever I tell someone I’m teaching an evening MBA class entirely devoted to “managing difficult people” the response is the same. “Oh, boy do I need to take that class.” Or, “Why didn’t they have that when I was in school?”

There was a long waiting list for the course. Apparently the working world is full of  serious loony tunes.

Perhaps. But as we dug deeper, the issues were far more complex. With a little risk and creativity, we experienced some significant turnarounds.

We didn’t change the world, but we made a dent, at least in Washington, DC. And if you’re going to make a dent, Capitol Hill is not a bad place to start.

The biggest discovery was most often not about the other “difficult” person, but how the changer became the changee in the process. Amen.

The Power of Writing it Down

Throughout the class, we used what most would call a “journaling technique.” I disguised it as graded homework to overcome the number one issue most of us have with journaling– it’s easy to blow off– particularly when it’s hard. They submitted them online and I followed (and we discussed), their stories, techniques, growth, victories and disappointments.

You can do this technique to approach your most difficult person. I encourage you to do so, and let me know how it goes.

Here’s your homework should you choose to accept it. If you leave a comment, I’ll give you 4 points for every assignment you complete 😉

Homework 1: Why is confident humility so important in dealing with difficult employees?

Homework 2: What types of behaviors/people/circumstances pose the most difficulty for you?

Homework 3: Who is a current difficult person with whom you have to interact, and what dynamics between you create the problems?

Homework 4: What are steps you can take to change the interaction with this difficult person?

Homework 5: What steps have you taken so far, and what results have you seen?

Tune back in on Wednesday, to hear their biggest lessons in managing difficult people.

Posted in Authenticity & Transparency, Career & Learning, Communication and tagged , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. The culture vampires are the most difficult for me to deal with. Lack skills? We can teach that. Have problems in meeting some basic requirements? We can structure that. Think you are beyond coaching or fitting in here? I’ll try, but if you can’t get it, then be gone. The worst vampires are the ones that don’t / won’t / can’t listen even when you have them 1:1. In the end, I’ve rarely been able to help them finally fit in. Often, we need to release them to find a better fit. Just not with us.

  2. Sounds like an awesome MBA class Karin!

    Working with difficult people is always a test of our ability to be patient and not over react. What I have shared when working with leaders in dealing with difficult people is that we need to not buy into the myth that they have control over us. It’s crazy but we often fall into that trap of allowing them to rule our workplaces. The only thing we truly have control over is our reactions. So we must take hold of the situation by not playing into the difficult person’s behavior but rather change how we respond and never lose our cool. We may wish them away but difficult people are here to stay.

    Thanks Karin for some great insights!

    • Terri, Thanks so much. That what so much of our discussion. The really crazy discovery was that difficult people caused others to become difficult people. It’s contagious.

  3. I’m not surprised there’s a waiting list! It’s fantastic that you’re not only creating the space to talk about managing difficult people but to understand that it’s a common experience.

    What’s really powerful about your homework is that you’re their coach! Helping them to spend time pondering tough and important questions that they’d rather avoid. It’s time spent in the pain of the questions and in the discovery of their truths that ultimately will create the change in their leadership.

    Fantastic! Look forward to the lessons learned!

    • Alli, Thanks so much. We began each class… “who needs to just get something off their chest (catharsis) that always led to great discussion.

  4. This is a great exercise, Karin!

    Love the questions…I wonder if those students realize how lucky they are to have their very own coach! You are providing them the perfect environment to learn more about themselves as well as others.

    Well done!

    • LaRae, Thanks so much. I’m loving every minute… I’m learning as much from them.

  5. Ms Hurt, you will make a great difference to the world you live in !Please connect with Dr Anjana Grewal = Senior professor at MISB Bocconi and an eminent educator of post-grad MBAs over 30 years.

    Marketing , Finance, Advanced OR, Econometrix , Corporate Ethics and Governance, and Director-
    Centers of Excellence.


    Raj Grewal

    PS : at the age of sixty , I am a Yogi and not a Bhogi >

  6. Humility is important because it lowers the walls demonstrating the we are all flawed in some way and we must still perform and rise to the tasks we commit to. I have the most difficulty with people that are highly valued and don’t want to damage their spirit or our relationship and as such I fail to hold them accountable when they let me or others down. I have an individual that fits this description that is not following through. I have recently had a heart to heart and fortunately, while difficult in the moment, it went well and the message was accepted. The trick is to be able to stay on top of it and be able to dig into the issues without it becoming personal for them. To be “Hard on the problem, easy on the people.” What else? Thanks!

    • Brad, thanks so much for sharing your experiences. I truly believe having a genuine solutions-oriented conversation makes all the difference.

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