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Leading Difficult People

Tomorrow's Academy

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Our major concern here is preparing you to handle individuals who spread toxicity and misery wherever they go while draining away everyone’s time and energy from getting work done. You need a workable strategy for handling these individuals before they erode collective morale—and your sanity.


The posting below describes seven rules for dealing with difficult faculty members. It is by Lee G. Bolman and Joan V. Gallos and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Spring, 2016, Vol. 26, No. 4. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone: (203) 643-8066 (, or see:



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Academia

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Leading Difficult People


We don't know that colleges and universities have more idiosyncratic and difficult people than other organizations, though anecdotal evidence to that effect is buttressed by popular stereotypes in film and fiction of mad scientists, absent-minded professors, campus despots, and manipulative administrators. Faculty, in particular, are expected to be idiosyncratic. It’s part of their charm and may fuel their productivity (Andreasen 2006; Wallace and Gruber 1989). Even if academe has no more than its fair share of challenging personalities, its employees have more autonomy and room to bring their full personal package to the workplace than do workers elsewhere. As a result, there are fewer guard rails to keep individuals from going off the road or crashing head-on into someone else. Most academic administrators have to deal with at least a few unusually difficult or prickly people who cause a disproportionate share of their headaches. How ready are you?

Our focus here is not on everyday cranks, critics, and gadflies. They may be irritating but are often valuable and productive citizens. Wise academic administrators honor and protect these industrious and candid curmudgeons. Think of them as a special kind of ally—and make them your best friends, not enemies. They offer early warning signs of trouble because they voice what others are thinking and feeling but not saying. Recognizing this can save a lot of energy and aggravation—and yield valuable information to inform your leadership choices. We will not address poor performers or folks who routinely promise more than they deliver. We recommend clear performance goals, consistent feedback, coaching, and assessment processes that hold people accountable for meeting stated expectations. Our major concern here is preparing you to handle individuals who spread toxicity and misery wherever they go while draining away everyone’s time and energy from getting work done. You need a workable strategy for handling these individuals before they erode collective morale—and your sanity.

We present a set of seven rules to help you stay grounded in the face of the range of cases you may encounter. Handling difficult people takes a combination of strategy, confidence, and calm - and some good training in counseling basics.

The Seven Rules for Dealing with Difficult People

Academic leaders handle difficult people best when they:

1. Assess the full situation

2. Look in the mirror

3. Befriend their challenge

4. Unhook

5. Set expectations

6. Get help

7. Divorce, if necessary

Rule 1: Assess the Full Situation

A first step in dealing with difficult people is to assess the situation so that you know what you have before you. It helps to differentiate between a genuinely difficult person and a work situation that is bringing out the worst in someone. This is important because it’s often easier to change the circumstances than the individual. Branding another person as difficult is tempting as a way to localize blame, but jumping to conclusions can block you from identifying situational adjustments to curtail the bothersome behavior.

A key test of a difficult person is whether the problematic behavior is chronic and consistent or situational. Does the individual’s behavior vary with different people or circumstances? Does the individual ever learn or adapt in response to feedback or open discussion? Was there a particular incident that triggered the behavior pattern? Indications that the behavior is situational or influenceable offer hope that a solution to the troublesome behavior can be found with learning for all involved (Bramson 1981).

Rule 2: Look in the Mirror

When others seem unreasonable or uncooperative, it’s important to remember that they may see you as the problem—and sometimes they could be right. There may be feedback on your leadership or your choices that you are not hearing. You may be over-responding to behavior that you perceive as troublesome. Or you may be reading unresolved issues from painful circumstances in your past into the current relationship, fearful that an unpleasant or challenging situation will repeat itself. It is human nature to respond defensively when feeling threatened or under pressure—and this is often the case in dealing with people we find difficult. Ask yourself or someone you trust if there’s anything you’re doing that might be causing or maintaining the difficulty. Even if there isn’t, you’ll have taken time for a useful check on your own leadership. The opportunity to take a step back and look at the big picture is always helpful.

Rule 3: Befriend Your Challenge

It often feels counterintuitive, but reaching out to those who cause you pain can go a long way in solving the problem—and it’s a good way to get the data you need to assess the situation. In the process, you may learn from them that there are reasonable things you can do to meet their needs or reduce their frustration, and the two of you may discover new ways to work together.

Reaching out is also a good diagnostic device to see whether you are dealing with someone who can respond to rational dialogue, as opposed to a candidate for separation or professional intervention. For example, a new dean in a professional school inherited a tenured faculty member, Professor Amo, who brought a reputation as a competent scholar and teacher but perennial malcontent. Amo had issued occasional broadsides harshly critical of the previous dean and soon appeared in the new dean’s office to complain that his raise from the prior year was entirely too low. For a variety of reasons, the dean concluded that she could not and should not change the raise. But she probed to understand the sentiments behind the request and learned that Professor Amo had special family circumstances that were causing significant financial pressures. The new dean listened and empathized. She told Amo that she couldn’t do anything about the raise, but she promised to keep her eye out for ways that the school could help. Later in the year, she was able to steer a modest amount of extra compensation to Amo for a small project. For the first time Professor Amo felt that a dean had listened and responded to his concerns. He became a more productive citizen and loyal supporter of the dean, and many of his colleagues were pleasantly surprised by the uptick in his outlook on life and work.

Rule 4: Unhook

The hardest people to deal with are those who push our emotional buttons. If, for example, you still carry the pain of a relationship with a parent who was never satisfied with anything you did, a demanding boss or colleague can inadvertently evoke feelings of rage and helplessness you’ve been trying to bury for years. Your colleagues and constituents have their own unresolved life issues, and leaders are perfect targets for their projections and negative feelings. When someone attacks you for something you didn’t do, if you stay grounded and unhooked, you can learn a great deal about the attacker from his or her projections (Carter 1989). 

The first step in unhooking is to recognize that you’re getting hooked. Know thyself is a ground rule for effective academic leadership—and a life saver for dealing with difficult coworkers. Step 2 is to understand the pattern: What does the other person do and in what circumstances that sets you off? Once you know that, you are ready for step 3: develop and rehearse alternative ways of responding that help you manage your feelings and stay on task. In the same way that professional musicians practice for hours so that muscle memory carries them through moments of forgetfulness or stage fright—and more important, builds their confidence that they won’t be shaken if either happens— academic leaders who rehearse and prepare alternative responses to difficult situations increase their likelihood of staying grounded. They also expand their repertoire of interpersonal options.

Suppose, for example, a colleague’s sarcastic digs cause you to seethe inside, which undermines your concentration on the task at hand. What are your alternatives the next time the sarcasm comes your way? You could ask a question, like “Is there something you’re trying to say that I’m missing?” You could say, “Thanks for the feedback,” take a deep breath, and move on. You could confront the other person: “That stings. Was that your intention?” You can probably think of others. You’re looking for responses that do two things. First, you want something that lets you script yourself as a calm and confident professional so that you can control your feelings rather than let them control you. Second, you want something that breaks the recurring pattern by responding in a way that your difficult person isn’t expecting. Surprise disrupts old routines and opens opportunity for a productive conversation.

Rule 5: Set Expectations

Sometimes people who seem difficult are simply doing what comes naturally in the absence of clear norms of conduct or expectations for performance. For example, most institutions have developed a code of conduct to deal with romantic or sexual involvement between employees and students. Those codes will not deter every instance of inappropriate contact, but they make it more likely that people know the rules and the potential costs of breaking them. The codes also make it easier to intervene when someone has gone off track. Setting standards, communicating them clearly (including in writing), and then holding people accountable for meeting those standards can make a world of difference.

Rule 6: Get Help

You don’t want to be alone in dealing with unusually difficult people. Consult with your boss, your human resources department, a trusted colleague, a professional coach, your campus counseling center, or a good friend. Ask for advice, and look for allies. Someone who troubles you is likely to bother others as well, and working with others makes it easier to mount an effective, coordinated response. Seeking support is not admitting defeat. It is a sound professional strategy for managing a complex institutional problem.

Rule 7: Divorce, If Necessary

Not every relationship problem can be solved, and not every individual is coachable. Some people are closed to learning. Others may have psychological or personal problems too deep to tackle with a work-place intervention. Offering others opportunities to reflect on their behavior and to expand their interpersonal competencies is not therapy, and a threshold of psychic stability is essential for professional growth (Argyris 1968).

If a sincere attempt to use rules 1–6 doesn’t produce improvement, it’s time to consider reassignment or discharge. This is rarely easy, particularly in the case of tenured faculty, and always requires careful attention to documentation and process. But when it becomes necessary, accept reality and move forward. Do it with as much grace and sensitivity as possible, but get it done.


Into every higher education administrator’s life an occasional difficult individual will fall, and these relatively few people often generate a disproportionate share of challenges while draining substantial amounts of time and emotional energy. There are no quick fixes, but there are things academic leaders can do to cope with the situation and to increase the chances that difficult people become valued and productive members of the team. Start by assessing the situation and asking if there’s anything you’re doing as a leader that might contribute to the difficulties. You will learn important things about your organization, about your leadership, and about the other person. Look for ways to befriend even those who seem negative or outrageous—you may learn something significant that helps you make life better for those who have been making yours harder. Pay attention to any emotional buttons of your own that others are pushing, and look for ways to unhook. If people are consistently behaving in unproductive ways, make sure that you communicate clear expectations about what’s expected of them and the consequences for violating those expectations. Finally, be prepared for the possibility that divorce may be the best option.

This article is adapted from Chapter 10 of the authors’ book Reframing Academic Leadership (Jossey-Bass 2011).

Lee G. Bolman holds the Marion Bloch/Missouri Chair in Leadership at the Henry W. Bloch School of Business and Public Administration at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. Email:

Joan V. Gallos is vice president for academic affairs and professor of leadership at Wheelock College. Email: jgallos@


Andreasen, Nancy C. 2006. The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius. New York: Penguin.

Argyris, Chris. 1968. “Conditions for Competence Acquisition and Therapy.” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 4 (2): 147–177.

Bramson, Robert M. 1981. Coping with Difficult People. New York: Dell.

Carter, Jay. 1989. Nasty People: How to Stop Being Hurt by Them without Becoming One of Them. Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary Books.

Wallace, Doris B., and Howard E. Gruber. 1989. Creative People at Work. New York: Oxford University Press.