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How to work with anyone: Recognising the different in the difficult

At Cape, we believe that great performance and impact as a people manager comes from having the courage and confidence to have the conversations that matter!

And especially to have those difficult conversations with the people that we are struggling to connect with, we need to have confidence in our intent and believe in ourselves.

In this article you are going to discover why this matters for people managers and the challenges they face, how to understand what makes people ‘difficult’ and some key strategies to help you get the best from anyone.


The most common challenges faced by people managers

This is probably the topic that that we talk about most frequently within our coaching sessions and on our programmes!

In our teams, we come across people who appear to be not motivated to go over and above, don’t do what is asked of them, or won’t cooperate with others…

…And this is when tensions arise.

The biggest and most difficult challenge of all is when people in our teams start displaying behaviours that are unhelpful or detrimental to the team. It not about what they are doing (or not doing) but more about how they are acting!


How to understand what makes people difficult

This type of behaviour impacts on how we feel as a people manager. We may feel annoyed, frustrated, angry or anxious. We might even start doubting ourselves.

When these situations arise, it is important to take a step back from how we have maybe approached these situation before and think about it in a different way.


What we really need to think about to handle these situations:

  • What’s going on for us - start with ourselves first before trying to change others.
  • Why it matters - understand the dynamics that happen in work relationships and our intent.
  • What’s going on for them - find out what’s really going on, rather than making assumptions about what you see.


What’s going on for us

We need to understand our own emotions: how we might feel in a situation, what triggers us, and what stops us from being at our best.

It is also important to pause and reflect and ask ourselves these questions:

  1. Have I been clear enough about my expectations? Did I explain why this is important and how this fits into the bigger objectives for the organisation?

It is unfair to think that people should just know. How should they know? It is not always obvious… We need to make the implicit as explicit as possible.

  1. What is the environment that I'm creating within this team? Am I communicating clearly or am I just having superficial conversations? Am I avoiding conflict and not saying what needs to be said? What is it about me that maybe I'm bringing into this as well?

There is quite an interesting approach to leadership developed by Steve Radcliffe, where he talks about a model called “impact intended versus impact felt” (i.e. What it is I'm actually intending to have as an impact versus how I actually show up to people).

The model emphasises the importance of being aware of the impact that one has on others, both intended and unintended. By understanding the impact that one has on others, leaders can be more intentional about their actions and better able to achieve their goals.

And this links to…

Why it matters

As a people manager, our role is to help people feel fulfilled at work as well as do a good job. We get what we tolerate! And this impacts on the rest of the team in terms of morale and productivity.

If we want to create a great work environment and have healthy relationships with our co-workers, we need to hold that intent and use that have courageous conversations.


What’s going on for them

We can make a lot of assumptions about what we are seeing as behaviours and what is really going underneath. But the truth is that we only see what’s going above the surface (a bit like an iceberg). So, if someone’s behaviour is different to what we would expect, then there might be other things at play. We can’t just assume we know the full picture!


We need to lead with curiosity. Really challenge our assumptions and start asking more questions.

We all have different way of processing information and communicating, managing our energy, etc… Sometimes the biggest challenges we find are with people who have different preferences or sets of values.

The most important thing is to start a conversation with the person you’re finding difficult to work with… and that means stepping into an ‘uncomfortable’ place! Saying ‘how can we work together effectively going forward?’.

How to get the best from anyone


The Drama Triangle

The Drama Triangle from Stephen Karpman is a useful model to help us understand the dysfunctional roles we play when faced with challenging conversations.


Each role in the triangle represents our state of mind, how we think and the way we act. We might assume one of them more often than others or we might keep switching between three roles, Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer without resolution.

The Persecutor is somebody who is really challenging (e.g. is quite accusatory, puts a lot of blame on other people, might be impatient and communicate this in a very assertive way).

The Victim assumes the role of helplessness (“it is not my fault”, “I have no control of this”, “it always happens to me”). The victim is always very pessimistic, has a glass half-empty sort of approach, and has a fixed mindset (“I cannot do this”). The persecutor and the victim will interact - but not in a good way - and reinforce these dysfunctional roles.

The Rescuer just wants to help the victim and the persecutor. But this will only reinforce their behaviours. And arguably the rescuer is the busiest one (out of the three) as they take on other people’s responsibilities.

So, how can you break the cycle?


The Empowerment Triangle

David Emerald Womelsdorff came up with an alternative model.

The Empowerment Triangle allows individuals to recognise their behaviour patterns when they arise, observe them in action and choose a more empowering way to think, relate, and take action. 

The Persecutor takes on the role of a Challenger who focuses on vision and desired outcomes. The Challenger takes full responsibility for initiating action to achieve their desired outcome, addresses problems constructively, acts with assertiveness and sets expectations. The Victim takes ownership of the elements in their control, becomes future focused in the role of the Creator. We can help them through by supporting them to see what they can do, what potential they have and developing their resourcefulness.

The Rescuer takes on the role of a Coach who empowers people through enquiry to help them gain clarity. The Coach is self-aware, caring, listens and equips the Creator with the ability to solve problems for themselves. Helping but in a different way. Ensuring that responsibility sits with the Creator, enabling through support.

Becoming more self-aware, identifying patterns in interactions and changing our own role will prompt others to do the same.

By embracing difficult conversations in a way it is most helpful.


Leading with curiosity

We never know how someone will respond and we often think of the risks in having difficult conversations:

  • We could be rejected,
  • We could lose the relationship,
  • The issue could escalate,
  • We might not be taken seriously,
  • We might hurt their feelings,
  • They might leave.

But by avoiding the conversations all together, more serious problems may arise (because they haven’t been addressed earlier on and are left to escalate).


Sometimes, the kindest thing we can do is to say what really needs to be said (but in an effective way!). We need to lead with curiosity (not by making assumptions) and really listen!

How can we lead more with curiosity, you ask?

We replace these assumptions with more facts! And we do that by asking these types of open questions:

  • How can we work better together?
  • How can we get the best from each other?
  • What do you respond best to?
  • How can I support you?
  • How can I help you with that?
  • What does a good working relationship look like for you?
  • What’s important to you about work?

To summarise…

Being a people manager comes with a lot of challenges, especially when dealing with ‘difficult’ team members. However, it is important to start with ourselves before trying to change others.

Ultimately, by having difficult conversations in an effective way and leading with curiosity, we can create a great work environment and have healthy relationships with our co-workers.

If you want to find out more about this topic, you can find tips and ideas in our social media posts on FacebookInstagram and LinkedIn and in our newsletter in the coming weeks.

CAPE Coaching & Development equip, empower, and enable brilliant People Managers through development programmes, workshops and 1-2-1 coaching. Learn more by visiting

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