HR Management & Compliance

Coping with Difficult People

Employment law attorney Michael Maslanka reviews the book Coping with Difficult People: The Proven-Effective Battle Plan that Has Helped Millions Deal with the Troublemakers in Their Lives at Home and Work. Review focuses on book’s profiles of employees who cause supervisors, managers, and coworkers stress and tips for how to deal with those employees.

Coping with Difficult People: The Proven-Effective Battle Plan That Has Helped Millions Deal with the Troublemakers in Their Lives at Home and at Work by Robert Bramson deals with employees who are stress carriers — who, through their negative and counterproductive behavior, cause distress in coworkers and drain you of energy. Here are some of their profiles and what you can do to turn them around.

Sherman tanks

The image says it all. These stress carriers are aggressive, arbitrary, arrogant, and often confuse creating a cloud of dust with progress. Sherman-tank employees have few interpersonal skills, often attack the person (not the problem), and think that E.Q. (emotional quotient) is a movie from the 1970s.

How do you deal with these employees? Here are some ideas:

  • Even a Sherman tank needs to be refueled from time to time. Give these employees time to run down, and speak with them when they’re recharging their batteries.
  • Stay calm. Your voice and body language need to convey calmness. Don’t let these employees manage you — you manage them.
  • Remember, just like apes in the field, people mimic one another’s manners. The quieter and calmer you are and the more relaxed and open your body language, the more they’ll ape you.
  • When they calm down, get them into a problem-solving frame of mind. Talk to them in an adult manner, and resist the strong temptation to talk to them like your six-year-old.
  • But speak frankly and firmly, letting them know how you feel and what they must do to change their behavior. Let them know you’ll help, but that “failure to change is not an option.”


Remember the movie On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando and that famous line, “I coulda been a contender”? Complainer employees are like that — they believe themselves to be powerless people and actually enjoy their role as victims. These employees see the world in terms of “oughts,” “shoulds,” and catastrophic thinking. Here’s some advice for dealing with complainer employees:

  • Pay attention to what they’re saying, and show that you’re listening attentively.
  • To understand the issues yourself and get the employees to realize they’re being heard, paraphrase what they’re telling you.
  • Focus on specifics, not generalities. Always ask specific questions to get specific facts about whatever problems or concerns the employees have.
  • Don’t agree or disagree with them. If you agree, you are just reinforcing their view of themselves as victims, and if you disagree, they shut down.
  • They’ll try to lead you into their world of “shoulda,” “oughta,” and catastrophic thinking. Don’t do it. Always bring them back to the issues at hand. And take baby steps with them — get agreement on limited issues and tasks. You must take a “macro” approach with Sherman tanks; with complainers, you need a “micro” perspective.


Superagreeables say anything to get their boss’ approval, even if it is impossible to deliver. And instead of coworkers being worn down by the complainers’ visions of Armageddon, the superagreeables cause you to misplace trust in promises they can’t possibly keep. Here are some ideas for dealing with superagreeable employees:

  • Try to find out why they feel so threatened about being frank.
  • Build professional relationships with these emplyees, but on a personal level — show concern about their career development and training.
  • When they start throwing around impossible promises, ask them in the tones of a professional dialogue about how the task will be completed. This brings them back to reality.
  • Let them know it’s OK to voice reservations to the boss. Here’s one analogy we’ve used successfully with new lawyers in our firm: “Planes crash because the copilot assumes that the pilot must understand the significance of the flashing warning light — after all, he’s been doing this for 20 years.” Simple visual statements like this let the employee know that expressing reservations is not only OK but an expected part of the job.
  • Often, superagreeable employees use humor to mask their inability to be frank. They do so because giving a direct statement — “I can’t get the job done on time” — is simply not part and parcel of the way they communicate. If you decipher their humor, you’ll understand them.
  • Look for an opening. If they even mention a problem in passing, seize the opportunity, tell them that it sounds like they have been thinking about the issue, and ask them about what it means for both you and them.

Michael Maslanka is the managing partner of Ford & Harrison LLP’s Dallas, Texas, office. He has 20 years of experience in litigation and trial of employment law cases and has served as Adjunct Counsel to a Fortune 10 company where he provided multi-state counseling on employment matters. He has also served as a Field Attorney for the National Labor Relations Board.

Mike is listed in The Best Lawyers in America and was selected as a “Texas Super Lawyer” by Texas Monthly and Law & Politics Magazine in 2003. He was also selected as one of the best lawyers in Dallas by “D” Magazine in 2003. Mike has served as the Chief Author and Editor of the Texas Employment Law Letter since 1990. He also authors the “Work Matters” column for Texas Lawyer.