Dealing With Difficult Personalities

We have all worked with them at one time or another, and it’s likely that many of you are working with them right now … difficult people. They are emotionally draining, take a toll on your attitude, job satisfaction, productivity and life outside of work. Although difficult personalities and the conflicts associated with them are unavoidable, there are ways to effectively deal with them and reduce the associated frustration.

Common Behavioral Problems

    1. Velcro. These are the people in your practice who cling to you like Velcro.  They may not want to take on additional responsibilities, they don’t leave you alone, and they struggle to work independently. The more capable and strong you appear, the clingier they will become. When dealing with these personalities, give them some additional responsibilities. Though they may initially balk at more work, stand firm and offer to help provide initial instruction. Make it clear that they will need to complete projects on their own.
    2. Controllers. Controlling personalities always need to be right. They believe they can always do a better job than you, and they always find something to criticize. Make it clear that you aren’t intimidated by the individual. You really need to stand up for yourself because at the core of this controlling behavior is insecurity. Defend your approach, course of action, or judgment and don’t change your plan to adhere to the controller’s demands. If faced with a confrontation with a controlling individual, approach it in a calm and rational way.
    3. Competitors. These individuals always seek to put down others to get ahead. They may talk over you in meetings or say negative things about you in front of others. As hard as it may be, consider whether it’s worth letting these individuals win. If you are faced with a confrontation with one of these individuals, stay calm, be steadfast, and try not to show emotion. If necessary, set up a reasonable argument based on facts. In most cases, if they realize they are losing the argument, they will likely ask if they can get back to you later with their thoughts. Give them some space to let them get away with an out and you’ll bring that intensity down.
    4. The Unpredictables. These individuals go to extraordinary lengths to be difficult. They may be extremely demanding, suddenly change goals or assignments to keep things off kilter, and so on. The underlying message here is that unless you agree with me and you go along with it, you’ll regret it. Controllers are not likely to change their behavior, so you must determine how to adapt to them in a way that works for you. Whatever you do, don’t mimic their behavior, and step away from confrontations with them if necessary. Getting yourself out of that situation sometimes will decrease the intensity of that argument or the confrontation.

Conflict Management Tips 

For many office managers, dealing with difficult personalities and the resulting conflicts that arise can be an everyday occurrence. Regardless of whether those difficult personalities and conflicts come from your staff or your patients, addressing them in smart ways is critical.

  • When you encounter a situation that might evolve into a conflict, remember …  Stop, Think, Consider Your Options, Make A Decision, and Proceed. Once you’ve made a decision about how to deal with the problem, stay with it and move on.
  • Consider the Worst-Case Scenario… When you encounter a conflict or difficult encounter, consider:
    1. What will be the worst-case scenario if you respond?
    2. What will be the worst-case scenario if you don’t respond?
  • Know when not to engage. Before engaging in a conflict with a difficult person, take a step back to assess the situation. It might be better to think about checking your reactions, consider what you want long-term out of this, rather than engaging in the conflict immediately. Be aware of your triggers – hot buttons that will draw you in. This awareness may help you keep perspective.
  • Speak calmly and respectfully. If someone is attempting to draw you into a conflict, or if you need to address problem behavior, speak slowly and with confidence. Then drop the volume of the conversation to capture the full attention of the individual(s).
  • Engage without emotion. If a conflict is escalating, bring down the intensity by asking thoughtful questions and acknowledging how the other person is feeling. If you are asking “What are you upset about” you are more likely to move towards conflict resolution instead of continuing the argument
  • Separate Fact from Fiction. If you are dealing with a difficult personality or conflict, you may encounter over-generalizations regarding your own behavior. For instance, someone might say to you, “You always mess this up.” Consider acknowledging a specific area in which the individual is correct but note that their overgeneralization is not correct. For instance, “Yes, I did overlook that this time, but it has never happened before.”
  • Take a deep breath. Take your time to get your thoughts in order when dealing with a conflict or a difficult person. If at all possible, step back, take a couple of deep breaths before you respond. Even a couple of deep breaths will help you craft a more considerate response.
  • Understand frustrations, but don’t acknowledge blame or become defensive. Show empathy toward angry or distressed individuals, but don’t take the blame for problems unless warranted.
  • Address problems in a professional, caring manner. If you are dealing with a difficult staff member and the behavior needs to be addressed privately, frame it in a professional manner. For instance, ask for permission to provide the individual with feedback. Say something like – “In order for you to be successful in this job, this is what I need to see from you …”. Also, explain the effect the staff member’s behavior is having on the practice, and reach an agreement on how the staffer will change the behavior, and within what timeframe.

Staff Accountability Will Improve Performance
Physicians and managers know their practice depends on its staff to meet management’s needs, complete the many important tasks required, and serve patients. One question you should ask yourself is “What objective measures do I use to rate my staff’s performance, give them the feedback they deserve, and pay them what they are worth?” Yes, it takes a team, but everyone needs to be treated fairly and that does require accountability.

Personal behavior and attitude counts, so be sure to document disciplinary warnings when an employee disrespects and refuses to support coworkers; won’t take direction from a supervisor; or fails to serve patients with kindness. Disciplinary actions will only be taken seriously if you document them in writing, handle the interaction professionally, and write up a performance improvement plan for the employee. The plan should have measurable expectations that you and the employee agree to in writing and provides for monitoring ongoing performance to hold the employee accountable for improvement.


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