Managing difficult team members

Written by Jonathan Ross
25 Nov 2023

Over the last 30 years I have rarely come across a team where every member was equally productive and never annoying. While I consider this situation a “normal” challenge of team collaboration, it does surprise me at how a lack of effort, empathy, or communication skills can cause a whole team to become dysfunctional.

Here are my key recommendations for actions on your part to interact more effectively with others in your team whose style may be annoying or frustrating to you.

  1. Define boundaries and expectations early 

Annoying team members may by force of habit ignore your earned expertise or leadership position. Make it clear that negative language is not tolerated in business discussions. Clarify communication norms.

I have found that every work relationship needs defined and understood boundaries, just like family and personal relationships. The boundaries in business may start with role scope limitations but certainly must include emotional constraints as well.

  1. Share your time constraints

Don’t let frustrating team members monopolise your time or jeopardise other commitments. Move on to other activities in a timely fashion, with a calm and courteous exit. If you are in charge of a meeting, make sure all members are aware of and live up to the same participation rules.

  1. Adjust your interaction style  

Over time, you can adjust your interaction style to make the relationship work better for both of you. For example, some people insist on giving you all the details before a conclusion or request for help, while you expect the end result first, to give the details a better context. Don’t interrupt.

Above all, don’t be confrontational. Think about how to engage your colleague in problem-solving, which is inherently collaborative instead of combative.

Don’t let frustrating team members monopolise your time or jeopardise other commitments.

  1. Keep interactions short   

Plan your discussions to occur immediately before a scheduled meeting. Keep yourself calm and positive, while avoiding contentious topics. Join in discussions with other team members or managers present. Check your body language to avoid giving negative messages.

  1. Focus team members on results

Expect every team member to produce results, and provide feedback and rewards based on results rather than work hours or activities. Do not tolerate complaints or excuses.

  1. Don’t broadcast your stress

Be aware that an obviously poor relationship with one team member may bias others against you. Always make sure your own behaviour is never seen as annoying, both in terms of what you say, and the body language you exhibit. The best leaders are praised for their handling of difficult situations.

  1. Treat every team member consistently. 

Ask a trusted coach for feedback to make sure that you are not part of the problem with difficult team members. Having productive and trusted relationships requires that you are able to adapt your approach as required, rather than expect everyone to adapt to your style.