Christine Oliver and Susan Lang

Oliver, C. & Lang, S. (1994) Managing difficult people. Managing: in Local Government and Education. Nov/Dec issue.

What form does a communication pattern need to take for a manager to describe a member of her staff as 'difficult?' What are the different consequences that follow when a manager locates the problem in the individual (for instance themselves or the difficult person), in the interaction between them, in organisational culture, or in the relationship between these different contextual spaces? What difference can it make if you define a difficulty as problematic or as information? What might be the most useful ways to position ourselves as managers in the context of the description 'difficult people' being used?

As managers using a systemic frame, questions like these reflect the way we think about communication in organisations. We find the metaphor of story useful in exploring the links between what happens (stories lived) and how we describe or talk about events to ourselves and others (stories told). We wonder what the contexts are for particular stories (e.g. 'he is a difficult person) to get told and not others. We are interested in who is telling the stories, with what purpose, to what effect and who is listening to them. How does the audience to the story act to translate, transform or sanction the story told. How does the process of telling affect the story lived.

We think in terms of stories about and relationships between different levels of context -that of the episode we are engaged in, our notions of who we are in that engagement (e.g. effective manager), our definition of relationship (e.g. who is accountable to whom and what rights and responsibilities follow from that), our stories about organisational culture (e.g. in this organisation information is weighted from top down').


In conversation with others (colleagues, those we manage and who manage us) our intentions in communication do not always equate with effects. Meanings are ascribed to what we say and do, interpreted by criteria that are literally alien to us in that we all use storying resources that have developed through unique experience, to make sense of any interaction of which we are a part. These resources allow us to decide how we should/could act next within a dialogue. Given the uniqueness of what we might call our story telling abilities, communication can have unintended consequences - a dissonance can be created between what is said, meant and heard. This can make for a context of' misunderstanding and conflict, a context where we begin to call each other difficult.

For instance, a member of a team requested to their manager that they spend time as a group discussing the structure of the team meeting. How might the way the communication was made (choice of timing, place, non verbal communication) affect the manager's interpretation of its meaning? How might previous experience (in this and other organisations, the context of this particular relationship, family rules about how difference is managed) shape its meaning? Would the manager interpret this communication as a vote of confidence that her team felt able to provide open feedback with the potential of initiating change, would she feel criticised for not initiating the discussion herself or for some other reason, would she think the team member was a difficult nuisance or would she tell a different story? Would she feel curious about the request or certain that it had a very particular meaning thus closing down curiosity? How might the story the manager was telling herself at this point affect her sense of obligation or freedom to act on the spot in relation to the request and in the meeting with her team?

What is happening in communication when we call someone difficult? One set of possibilities of stories a manager might begin to tell about her own ability to act at the point of drawing this distinction are

- I can't make him change

- I know best

- I'm confused about what to do next

- whatever 1 do is wrong

- I am no good as a manager

- how will this situation hurt me

Stories about the difficult person might be characterised by

- he won't co-operate

- he is wrong, sick, destructive

- he doesn't understand

These kinds of descriptions individualise the manager and the managed. The explanation for the difficulty (and by implication its solution) resides with either the manager or the managed. In this context, blame or shame characterise the discourse and the experience of individuals within it.

A systemic perspective suggests we think of social reality (patterns of communication, identities, relationships, cultures) as co-constructed. Simply put, this means that we shape each other and the possibilities for the relationship by how we communicate. This way of thinking about difficulties brings we into the frame as well as I, you, she he and them.

If we think about difficult interaction in this light, we could describe what is happening as poor co-ordination or prioritising coherence over co-ordination and we might see that tensions can be created between co-ordination and coherence as we negotiate our realities in the work place. The ways we are using these words are : - co-ordination meaning how we negotiate meaning and action together - coherence meaning our attachment to our own stories for how to act and how the world is and should be.

Pearce (1993), an American communication theorist, has described four forms of communication which differ in their approaches to coherence and co-ordination. The first prioritises co-ordination but the latter three prioritise coherence and in the face of difference or conflict will let co-ordination suffer :

a)cosmopolitan - values well co-ordinated communication, stressing collaboration rather than competition; shows commitment to exploring and attempting to make sense of descriptions (own and others) without denying difference; acknowledges the other's logic; develops skills in comparing and translating stories.
b)ethnocentric - shows conviction about the superiority of one's own view or approach
c) monocultural - assumes sameness of view thus denying the validity of the other to have a voice
d)modernistic - prioritises progress without contextualising its usefulness, seeing change as good for its own sake regardless of the requirements of a situation

These latter three communication styles take little account of situational requirements in any given interaction. A manager prioritising cosmopolitan communication, however, will deveop the skill of reflexivity in examining the contexts/stories which shape her actions and and reflect on how her actions shape abilities in herself and others to act with accountability, strength and coherence.


It as managers we aspire to take actions that made for an effective fit with a situation in all its it complexity, rather than be hidebound by ideologies, we need to think about the purposes and effects of the language we use - what professional identities, definitions of relationship, organisational cultures might we be constructing, reinforcing or challenging by describing a problem one way or another?


A recent consultation to a new manager and her team of six indicated that the culture within which people worked was characterised by blame, shame, conflict and feeling of failure. The manager experienced each of her staff as difficult. She felt the dilemmas of her position were not understood. She felt disrespected and was critical of her staff. She was reluctant to clarify her own views and take a lead for fear of creating an untenable conflict. She was aware of the need for change but feared overt expression of conflict in case things got worse.

Her staff felt their concerns were not understood or addressed, that the manager did not care about their interests but only in fighting her own corner. They wanted stronger leadership in order for a context to get created for them to act coherently in role.

A culture had developed whereby differences were not only not explored but the attempt to minimise them led to deeper chasms and a lack of comprehension for anyone as to how to move forward. Each person saw the solution to the impasse residing in somebody else.

In the process of the consultation we and the group saw how a history of crisis and rapid change in the organisation had constrained patterns of communication and definitions of relationship. Survival had become a strong theme within a modernistic communication culture. The organisation acted as if change was good for its own sake with little regard to the effects of change. This context created a logic for an experience of dissonance between organisational and individual interests and for people to act as if protection of individual interests was necessary. In this sense everyone was in the same position but lived experience spoke of un-meetable difference.

In this context, stories about 'difficult persons' were common currency. For instance, one person who we shall call Mary was privately seen as stubborn, inflexible and incompetent by some members of the team. However this was not made explicit but they engaged in frequent episodes characterised by poor negotiation, irritation and frustrating outcome. Mary complained to her manager of being undermined and disrespected but this complaint was framed as persecution (with a lack of comprehension of why she couldn't see things differently and not pose such a problem for the manager) rather than as containing some kind of logic. The desire to push for change was acted upon rather than the desire to explore.

This dynamic was transformed when Mary's private analysis was acknowledged in a public forum as having some basis which then paved the way for the team to create stories in more appropriate organisational language about their difficulties in functioning. For instance, it emerged that there existed confusion about the relative rights and responsibilities in decision making for the different team members. It was further made clear that there was a strong request being made for the manager to take a lead in clarifying this definition of relationship and an understanding developed of how his ability to do so had been constrained by the connections between organisational culture, confused relationships, negative ascriptions of identity and problematic beliefs about the destructiveness of raising difficult issues.

The team showed an ability to move forward having recontextualised the stuckness they were experiencing so that the problem became less a possession of Mary's and more of a complex interaction of contexts out of and into which each individual was acting.


So how do we place ourselves as managers most usefully to take difficult co-ordinations forward?

We propose that we include ourselves in our frame and that the picture is one of the connections and contradictions between stories at the different levels of context of organisational life. On finding ourselves using the description 'difficult' we suggest that certain questions can be asked (of ourselves and relevant others) from a position of interest in elaboration rather than a desire to gain ascendancy. These questions might include :

what descriptions am I using in this situation and what are the contexts that inform them?
who in the system (including the difficult person) might create different descriptions? what are the contexts for these different descriptions?
what are my stories about my stories e.g. how strongly attached am I to them? why might that be? how do my stories affect what I do how do other relevant persons' actions affect what 1 think?
if I thought in terms of a pattern of interaction how might I describe it?
how does this pattern create constraints and freedoms for future actions (for self and others) and what is my contribution to that?
what effect might it have if I explored with the difficult person our understanding of our rights and responsibilities in the relationship and how those understandings arise?
who should I reflect with about these questions, to what purpose and what are the likely effects?


There are no universal definitions of 'difficult people'. This article has attempted to unpick something of the forms of communication that people are engaged with when difficulties get lodged in persons. We have suggested that useful action often begins with the asking of questions that focus on the links between meaning and action. We propose that on the whole framing persons in a negative light without exploring the contexts that produce those descriptions is not organisationally productive.

It is important to add that if we believe that context gives meaning to any description, perhaps we need to ask - in what kind of context might the description 'difficult person' be a useful one? For us a practical answer could be - when the definition of reality of the organisation and the individual are so different that there is no fit for co-ordination to occur. In this context difficult means not fitting.

Pearce W.B. (1993) Communication and the Human Condition. Southern Illinois University Press.

Christine Oliver and Susan Lang

Organisational consultants and psychotherapists Co-Directors KCC International