How do you communicate with team members with a chip on their shoulder? What do you do or say when they are stubborn, constantly interrupting, unapproachable, or unwilling to accept feedback? Well, for starters, you are not alone. Every workplace I’ve ever been has at least one of these people working there. Let’s look at a few ways to deal with the madness.

While there are multiple dynamics for this question (dealing with subordinates, peers, and managers), I’m going to stick solely with dealing with team members. 

A personal story

I had an, um, interesting experience at a previous employer with a coworker, and it was the closest I’ve ever come to quitting a job. Here’s my story:

The computers and network at this company were terrible. The internet connection, which I needed to complete my work, was unstable and usually worked about 25% of the time between the hours of 8:00am and 5:00pm. In order to get my work accomplished, I started showing up at work at 7:00am to get some stuff done before the network slowed to a crawl. Well, one morning I received an email about some training that I had been considering, so I opened up the links to the training website, leaving it running in the background so I could read it over my lunch hour.

During lunch, I was sitting there with my door closed when my coworker walked in and announced that she needed to use my computer because hers wasn’t working. I put my lunch down and asked if the internet connection was her issue, because mine wasn’t working either. She walked around behind my desk and pointed accusingly at me because the website was pulled up. Despite my attempt to explain that it was done hours earlier, she walked out and slammed the door.

I put it behind me. The woman had that reputation for being abrasive, and I didn’t need any further stress thanks to our shoddy technical resources.

The next day in our department meeting, our manager asked if anyone had anything to discuss. My coworker looked at her and said, “I think Ben’s not a team player. He was using his computer during lunch yesterday and wouldn’t let me get my work done.”

Of course I did my best, but I couldn’t keep from laughing. I explained the issue and how I had loaded the pages five hours before she came into my office demanding my computer, but I could tell it was a lost cause. The coworker had been working there for several years, and I knew my manager would believe her over me. I refused to give in, but when we left the meeting I felt humiliated by the accusations and betrayed by my manager. One thing was for sure, I was going to start looking for another job right away.

I wanted to tell my personal story as a warning. Everyone in the situation, the manager, coworker, and even me, could have handled the issue better. We all deserve some of the blame for it getting out of hand. Since that time I’ve done everything I can to be more aware of these situations and I try to follow the ideas I’ve listed below. It’s my own personal formula for communicating with difficult team members, so use at your own risk. :-)

How to deal with the issue

First, I would give them a chance to open up. Sit down and talk with them for a few minutes. The easiest advice to follow is that of the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. Here are a few high points (more listed here):

  • Don’t criticize, condemn or complain-Starting with any of those three statements will instantly close the person off to further discussion and could hamper future communication efforts.
  • Give honest and sincere appreciation-Tell them something they did well, and make it sincere. People can tell when you’re setting them up with false appreciation, so make it truthful and heartfelt.
  •  Smile-It might be hard, but it can make or break your discussion.
  • Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language-This is a sales technique, and it works. People enjoy hearing their own name and you can use it to keep them focused on the conversation and what you have to say.
  •  Talk in terms of the other person’s interests-This is one I’ve used to great success. Instead of asking them to make your work easier, show them how making a change will actually help them in the long run. Make it about them, not you.
  • The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it-If an argument begins, drop it. There will be another time and place to continue the discussion, but arguments have a way of getting us to say things that we can’t recover from.
  • Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.” Even if they have the dumbest idea and are completely incorrect, you need to be tactful in the handling of the issue. If not, they will (again) close off and become defensive instead of focusing on the problem and how it can be solved.
  • If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically-This can help teach others that it not only is okay to admit mistakes, it is preferred to the long, drawn-out battle of the wills over who is right and wrong.

So, once you’ve had the talk with the person and followed (as closely as you can) the suggestions above, you should hopefully be in a much better place to communicate with them in the future. Use these principles as a guide for future conversations and interactions and it’s hard to go wrong.

However, sometimes that just isn’t enough. There’s a continual clash between the two parties or even an irreconcilable difference that can’t be overlooked. What else can you do?

  • You can go to your manager for help. They might be able to offer insight or alternatives that aren’t immediately obvious to you.
  • You can do your best to continue your work without interacting with the person. This is less attractive because it can impact how decisions are made, and it’s not a 100% permanent solution.

And that’s about it, really. I’m a fan of handling the issue between you and the other team member if at all possible. However, sometimes there just isn’t a way to get the other person on board. That leaves you with the two options above as the end-of-the-line alternatives for resolution.

Thanks to Kathy Duffy for sending in this great question! Anyone else have an idea they’d like to share for communicating with difficult team members?

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  • 2 thoughts on “Communicating with difficult team members

    1. G’Day Ben,
      Your experience is not uncommon. It occurs when managers focus on individual rather than team performance. In my experience, 90% or more of interpersonal conflicts at work occur as a result of role and goal conflict.

      Clarify the team goals and the roles and goals of each team member. when this is done most so called ‘personality clashes’ will dissolve. Concern yourself with sorting out ‘personality clashes’ is merely solving symptoms not problems. And that will ultimately impair team effectiveness.

      If you’d like to know more, please check out my blog

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