Ever wondered why some people get stressed out by ‘difficult’ colleagues and
clients while others don’t let it affect them or handle them really well?
One of the key strategies for handling difficult people successfully is not
to react to each incident as it happens but to focus on the underlying patterns
It’s easy and tempting to label a person as difficult, but it may just be one
aspect of their behaviour that is problematic. Difficult behaviour covers a
multitude of sins – from angry and insecure to plain old patronising. But
there’s one behaviour pattern that may not appear as difficult as bullying but
can cause untold damage to a business: show-offs.
What is it that is so infuriating about show-offs? Some people just cannot
resist being the centre of attention, irrespective of what everyone else wants
to do. They physically crave attention, and if other people are not paying them
that attention they will ramp up the shouting, bullying, dominating and
undermining until they engineer their own exit from the situation – dramatically
of course – by storming off and typically blaming others for ‘not
Often they are so busy getting noticed they are oblivious to the effect they
are having on everyone else. You can avoid them, glaze over, not pay attention
or try to get away as quickly as possible, but the only things they seem to
respond to are applause, or being told how wonderful or clever they are.
It’s exhausting for everyone around them – and exhausting for them too.
One good way of handling this showing-off pattern is to make it appear as if
you are pandering to their whims.
The only way to get their attention is to give them what they need – praise.
So saying ‘that’s a great idea!’ or ‘wonderful – that’s just what’s needed!’ or
something along those lines will normally stem their flow. Don’t worry about
sounding over the top. Throwing in the odd ‘perfect!’ or ‘great!’ may simply
not be enough for them.
You might struggle with this idea – after all, if someone is being mouthy,
the last thing you’ll probably want to do is tell them they are right. But it’s
only by doing the opposite of what might be expected that you stand a chance of
breaking the cycle of behaviour.
Now you’ve given them what they need, bring your needs into the equation. It
might be a case of saying something like: ‘But that idea is more about you than
about our client’s needs.’ Or: ‘I would rather have something more thought
And then, in a quiet moment or a regular supervision or appraisal meeting,
address the pattern. For example: ‘We know you are smart but we’re getting tired
of you trying to prove it all the time. You don’t seem to have noticed that
people are getting reluctant to come into meetings with you or ask your advice.
‘Rest assured that your contribution is valued, but not when you ram it down
people’s throats, because that’s how it can feel. From now on, please consider
your input, as we’d rather have your considered input than have to exclude you
Be prepared for them to look utterly astonished – they have, after all, been
far too busy performing to notice. Also, you can expect them to ask you for
examples of this behaviour, so have ready at least three recent instances to
This direct approach might seem harsh, but nothing else you’ve tried has
broken the pattern, has it? Tell them what they need to hear, fairly and
squarely. And, almost certainly, they will thank you for your honesty, although
probably not immediately.
You will have given them lots of food for thought. And you might want to
ensure that they have a performance coach to help them to work this through and
to modulate their approach to everyone’s satisfaction.
Showing-off is one form of behaviour that can be very destructive in an
organisation. The only positive is that it unites people – albeit against the
Mike Leibling is a personal and organisational coach. His new book, ‘How
people tick: a guide to difficult people and how to handle them’, is published
by Kogan Page, £9.99
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