Working with difficult or negative people can be stressful. Learn reasons why people act so negatively and what you can do about it. Human Resources expert Tamara Finlay suggests diagnosing the issue using the SCARF model, then shares specific Do’s and Do-Not’s, depending on whether it is your peer, your subordinate or your boss.


References & Links

Tamara Finlay

THE SCARF Model – Dr. David Rock Your Brain at Work - book

Other References 

Talk About Talk & Dr. Andrea Wojnicki



Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you Tamara, so much for joining us here today.

Tamara Finlay: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

AW: Okay, so communicating with difficult people. I guess by definition, this is a negative topic. I know it’s a topic that causes people a lot of angst as several listeners have emailed or mentioned to me that they have difficult or negative people at work, and they just don’t know how to handle it. They’re looking for some tips on how to best handle this. So in your experience as an HR professional, do you think that it’s common that people have challenges with difficult people? negative people at work

TF: I think at the end of the day, we’re human and humans are complex, with such diversity in the workforce right now, more so than ever in our entire history. We all have our unique personalities, preferred ways of communicating and doing things and everything is changing at the speed of light. Inherently people are going to be stressed. stress causes certain behaviors. And I think what we’re seeing is not necessarily negative people. What we’re seeing is people behaving in a way that we may not like.

AW: So this is an interesting question is, at least as far as I’m concerned, is it true maybe that some people are just difficult, like it’s part of their personality?

TF: I think we’re all attracted to different people for different reasons. Obviously, we’ve all experienced where we’ve got some relationships that are way easier than others. And some we have to work on more than others, right? We’re not going to love everybody, but we can certainly appreciate them for what they bring to the table, that people’s inherent wiring or what their natural go to is. I’ve used a tool in the past that actually has been effective, where I had this one team member that always approached things right out of the gate. From a negative perspective.

AW: I’ve worked with those people; the default answer is “NO”. 

TF: There’s a lot of value in that in the right circumstances. So what we actually did is we learn about the six thinking hats technique, are you familiar with it?

AW: Yes.

TF: So what it is, it’s a model that can be used for exploring different perspectives. And you can put on different hats depending on the circumstances or what you’re trying to achieve. It’s a great way to solve problems as a group. So you could have an entire group, even though one may be natural wired as a black hat, the pessimist, and one is more the yellow hat, which is an optimist, but you can have the entire group say, Okay, let’s now put on our black hat and think what are the risks if we do it this way?

AW: So that would be like the devil’s advocate sort of?

TF: Exactly. For this six thinking hats technique, the WHITE hat focuses on the facts. The RED one focuses on emotion. The BLACK hat, which is the one we were just talking about, is more the pessimist. It really is. They’re careful, they’re cautious. The YELLOW focuses on what’s good. So the optimist. GREEN focuses on possibilities. And BLUE focuses on organizing, it creates a common language and takes the emotion and the personal out of it. It took me a while to get to this point to really appreciate the black hat. But I’d rather have the black hat and know as many risks and challenges up front so we can fix them or mitigate or deal with them before we go and launch a whole new program. I love this framework because we want to pull out those different perspectives.

AW: So would you try to hire people that represent each of those hats? Or would you say, today in this meeting, you’re going to have the black hat? or would you say during a meeting, each of us need to try and represent all of the hats. How does that work?

TF: It can work in so many different permutations. Yes, when we hire we obviously want to hire for diversity. So we’re hiring for different things we don’t have, and some do assessments in terms of preference of working styles, thinking styles, that type of thing. It’s really about leveraging the diversity and people’s strengths to create that inclusive culture. I’ve seen it work effectively so you’re not just pinpointing Hey, you, you’re the black hat, I need a black hat….

AW: I can imagine that happening.

TF: It’s “Let’s all put on our black hat today. And let’s go through what are the risks?” Now inherently, someone who’s naturally wired as a black hat will probably be the first out of the gate or will have the most extensive list. Well, that’s great, right? But it gets people thinking and using different parts of their brain.

AW: brilliant. How do we handle someone who’s got some negative stuff going on? It could be a sick relative, they could be exhausted because they have a new baby at home, whatever the situation is. How do you handle that?

TF: So I think there’s two different things here. One is if you’ve got someone whose behavior has changed, then you want to understand why everyone’s talked about work life balance. I don’t think that exists. I think it’s work-life blending, and it ebbs and flows. And it’s a give and take. It’s not like we can park our personal when we walk into work. And when we walk, when we walk in the door home is not like we’re parking work. So it’s really how do we blend it as best as we can. So hopefully, you’ve created a trusting, safe, psychologically safe environment, that you can have those open and candid conversations and help them as a human being not just as an employee.

AW: I love that point. Of course, we need to have boundaries. But as Professor Ellen Auster, who I interviewed about change management said it’s great to initiate or end an email or a conversation that you’re having face to face with a colleague with how was your weekend or how did that event go that your daughter had or whatever and to actually really mean it.

TF: for sure. Because again, you’re trying to connect emotionally. One of the things that resonated with me is in a moment of crisis. If someone wasn’t getting paid to be there would they be there? So if this is happening after hours? Or requires extended hours.? You want people to want to help you, they’re going to help you as a person, not because of the job, right? So how do you get that if you don’t have some type of emotional connection and relationship with them?

AW: this leads me to the next question, which is what if you’re in a relationship situation at work where the person who you’ve identified as being difficult may be jealous of you or is highly competitive? And I can tell you I have been in this situation it was when I was in my 20s and I had some coworkers that were intensely competitive to the point that it affected our productivity.

TF: This is where I use the SCARF Model. It was introduced to me by a neuroscientist, Dr. Carlos Davidoff, it’s really helpful in dealing with resistance and threats. The pace of change, we’re always running at mach-7. And running at mach-7 often puts us all under a lot of stress. So the behaviors of people under stressful situations, how do we create that psychology? Please safe environment, S is for Status. So the perception of being compared either higher or below our peers, okay? C is for Certainty. So it’s all about the need for clarity and ability to make accurate predictions about the future. A is Autonomy, and its sense of control over events in our lives. And R is for Relatedness. So sense of having shared goals. So it’s really that sense of belonging being in the group. And then the final one of SCARF, F is Fairness, the sense that we’re being respected and treated fairly in comparison to others. When that’s at risk, that’s when we start to see all these what you so called negative behaviors. So it’s all about the brain and how we behave and why is that so what are they motivated by?

AW: So they want to get a promotion and they believe that if you get one, they aren’t.

TF: Look at the pie scenario. Do we only have X many slices, or can we increase the number of slices? Or can we make a bigger pie or create two pies?

AW: Sometimes in my experience, these people may believe that there is a finite pie, not an infinite pie, right. And if you get a big piece, they get a small piece.

TF: I look at it as a view is my responsibility as a leader to try to unlock that for them to help them learn and grow and really develop?

AW: So I think you just answered my next question, is it helpful or necessary to diagnose what’s going on in order to deal with it?

TF: Absolutely. In my work and personal experience, if it’s left undiagnosed, not only does it not go away, it often explodes. It gets worse.

AW: Right. So after we’ve diagnosed what may be going on in the relationship, or with the person that is, quote unquote difficult, we need to know what to do how to handle the situation. And when I was doing some research for this episode, I read something about transitivity which is another theory that I love, and it applies to so many relationship contexts and communication contexts. And this particular article said something about dealing with difficult people is not when we should be thinking about transitivity. In other words, two negatives does not equal a positive. We need to deal with negativity in a positive way.

TF: Again, this is where it’s tapping into the human and the emotional connection. What would you want in their shoes? They may not even be aware of the impact their behaviors having and so if you built a relationship that’s based on trust, and you created that trusted environment and psychologically safe environment to be able to provide that ongoing back and forth feedback in real time, saying, this is how it makes me feel – because no one can tell you how to feel.

AW: Can you share with the listeners some of the more typical reasons why someone might be difficult?

TF: Often it’s because they’re acting out of fear. So again, that comes to the SCARF model, what’s motivating them is they perceive risk. What they perceive has changed. So is it because they feel they don’t have the tools that they need to do their job? to do something new? something’s changed? is it that they’ve got something completely different? personal issues going on that they need to deal with? So there’s various different things. But again, that’s why I think the SCARF model is so effective because it’s our natural wiring, it’s about the brain.

AW: Okay. The first thing we do is diagnose and use the SCARF model. So status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness and think about which one or ones of those reasons that someone may have or behaving in a difficult way.

TF: And not only in others, but also in ourselves. Absolutely. So what are our triggers? So for example, I know under certain circumstances, that’s going to be my trigger, and I’m going to behave in a way I don’t want to behave. So now knowing that I can catch it, and hopefully stop it before it starts.

AW: This has such relevance. Even Within like a family dynamic and a personal situation,

TF: Sure, absolutely. You can apply this in all parts of life.

AW: So what then should you do – you’ve number one done the diagnosis, what’s the next step?

TF: Depends what role you’re in. And I think it’s really exhibiting empathy and kindness, then it’s setting clear expectations and making sure people have the tools to do their job. So it comes down to Maslow’s theory, let’s cover off the basics so that people can really excel they can get to develop self-actualization, all those great things you want to real time.

AW: So can you provide us maybe with – I’m putting you on the spot here – but with some scripts, things to say when someone we’ve diagnosed what the situation is, and we want to make it clear that we want to help the person and we want to continue working with them?

TF: You just said right there. If it’s coming from your heart, again, it’s based on that relationship, then people are open to that it’s like then how can I help you?

AW: I had one situation when I was a manager that I sometimes think about was one of my things that I’m most proud of, I got promoted slightly in advance of one of my peers. And then I was putting the awkward, we were putting the awkward, situation of me managing him. And for the first week, it was incredibly challenging, and we were butting heads, and we kind of didn’t know how to act. We went from peers to subordinate and boss. And so I asked him to come into my office and close the door. And I said, Listen, you need to get promoted. And I need to be identified as a great manager. So let’s get you promoted as quickly as possible. And let’s make that our goal, because that’ll also make me look like a great manager. And we can do this, and he was like, he actually hugged me. And he got promoted pretty darn quickly because we were both totally focused on that. So we came up with, you know, basically common ground.

TF: Well, it’s all about creating a Win-win. So whatever makes sense and is appropriate under the circumstances. I also had similar scenario where I ended up managing my peer as a direct report and her entire team,

AW: I can imagine that that would be particularly sensitive conversation to have, particularly when you’re working in HR!

TF: for sure. It was definitely a challenging moment. But we got through it quite well.

AW: So what are some of the more common mistakes that people make when there’s someone difficult in their office?

TF: Well, there’s a bunch of things. One is just ignoring it and thinking it’s going to go away. I have yet to see it actually go away on its own. The other thing is it just going out and talking to other people instead of talking to the person directly.

AW: I think that’s a big one.

TF: It’s a huge one. And so again, it creates this big snowball, and all these are avoidable.

AW: So when you’re doing the diagnosis, that doesn’t mean collecting information from other people?

TF: Well, yes and no, it really depends on the circumstances, but you can do it in a very professional respectful way.

AW: Sometimes the relationship is dictated to us as we know personally and professionally in terms of our level. Do you have any advice specifically about dealing with a difficult subordinate and then dealing with a difficult peer and then dealing with a difficult boss in terms of a subordinate?

TF:  I think we just talked about that where you’re their leader, and that’s where I think it’s your accountability as a leader to really in private work with them to understand where’s this coming from? These are your expectations. These are of the observations This is how it’s made you feel, or others feel or what have you.

AW: I think your privacy comment needs to be double underline there, no matter who it is

TF: absolutely it this is something that’s confidential. And then in terms of a boss, I’d say it’s somewhat similar. Hopefully you’ve created or trying to focus on creating a good working relationship. You don’t have to be best friends, but a good working relationship and it’s the same thing. I would say the peers probably the most challenging,

AW: probably the most common too?

TF: I see relationships amongst peers, where there’s no clear accountabilities. I always encourage: first, go to the person directly, because it’s much easier to catch it, you’ve got more examples. And it honestly, it actually helps build the relationship going forward. So that’s where I recommend taking people out for coffee for lunch walk. And what I found effective is really trying to get them outside of the normal environment. So go for a walk to the coffee shop or to lunch or get to know them as a person. Because once you know someone more on a personal level, it’s amazing how much better you can work together.

AW: That’s true. That’s true. Your comment about having a difficult boss reminded me of the story when I had a very, very difficult manager and I remember I called my dad who lived in a different city and I said, Dad, I don’t know what to do, because I don’t respect him. And he’s incredibly difficult. And he said, Well, here’s two questions. Number one Does his personality and his behavior represent the culture of the firm you’re at? Because if it does, you need to get out of there. And I said, No, it doesn’t. He said, Okay, so you’re probably fine. And number two, does this provide a learning opportunity for you? I said, Well, yeah, how not to treat my subordinates. And he said, Okay, so you’re all good.

TF: Great questions.

AW: Yeah, thanks, Dad. So in my mind, I have a hierarchy of responses going from ignore it to implicitly dealing with it to explicitly having a conversation with the person which I hear is your main recommendation. And then the last rung of that hierarchy is going to your boss or going to the HR department and formally complaining, under what conditions would that be the ideal response?

TF: based on your continuum, (A) that you’ve actually observed this type of behavior with your own eyes, and (B) if you haven’t been successful in resolving it on your own, or (C) it’s escalated in terms of impact. That’s where I think the whole escalation process comes into play.

AW: Okay, what does HR do when someone comes in and says, This person is making my life hell? like that something’s got to happen, or I’m leaving?

TF: Well, it depends on what it is again. And actually, interestingly enough, it comes back to your dad’s questions to understand is this behavior, what we want? Is that who we are as an organization? If it’s not aligned, then we need to understand is this a one off? Is it circumstantial? Or is it inherent? And if so, have we not done our job in terms of acquiring talent to ensure that they’ve got the same values as we as an organization

AW: and or clarifying what the expectations are?

TF: Exactly.

AW: Okay. Is there anything else you want to add about communicating with difficult people?

TF: I keep coming back to this. We’re human and we have emotions, and we’re not robots. So treat people like humans connect with them on a personal level. And remember the whole SCARF model. I think it’s a phenomenal model in terms of how we control and manage our own emotions and know our own trigger points, as well as for others and recognizing it in others.

AW: Thank you very much Tamara, for sharing your insights and your expertise about dealing with difficult people.

TF: Thank you for having me. I’ve really enjoyed our dialogue and I’ve learned a few new things to try.

AW: Oh, me too! Thank you.


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