Dealing with Problem People (Part 1)

Dealing with Problem People (Part 1)

In our last article, we looked at different cultures and saw how these affect how people respond in different situations. But I’m sure that practicing project managers (whether PMP® certified or not) will say that there are a lot more issues when it comes to dealing with people than culture alone. The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) tells us to Develop Project Team and to Manage Stakeholder Engagement. Yet how do we work with awkward individuals? According to Peter Honey (in his book “Problem People and How to Manage Them”), there are no such things as problem people, only problem behaviours.

This is an interesting point. There are situations when a person gets on our nerves. But if we are asked to pinpoint exactly what the issue is we often cannot do so. In these cases, the problem could be that we simply do not like the person. In other words, the problem is ours, not theirs. For project managers, the first thing to do if one of the team (or indeed any stakeholder) appears to be a problem person is to describe objectively the problem behaviour. If you cannot do this, review your own management style – it could be that this person is just not responding to your usual form of leadership.

But if you can identify definite problem behaviours, what can you do? Well doing nothing is an option. However, that often allows issues to fester and is not to be recommended. You can change your perception of the problem. For instance, different roles need different skill sets, so instead of complaining that the “problem person” is not suitable for the role s/he is in, consider what role such a personality would suit.

The most obvious course of action is to have “The Talk” and try to persuade the person to change behaviour. Be careful how you approach this. Have your facts at hand and focus on the unacceptable behaviours. Do not target the individuals themselves. Make sure you listen carefully at these sessions – it could be that the person just is not sure what the responsibilities associated with the role are. It is often the case that the solution is to alter the situation the person is in. Many of us have found ourselves in roles that did not suit us – changing the role can turn someone into a valuable contributor. In the software world, for instance, poor programmers often become effective testers.

The main bulk of “Problem People and How to Manage Them” deals with different types of people and it is interesting that the first on the list relate to your boss. “The Abdicator” applies liassez-faire management, which PMPs® will remember is frowned on by the Project Management Institute. Having a liassez-faire manager can be great, but it is important to report regularly in writing, so they cannot have “plausible deniability” if things go wrong.

The next example is the textbook one of “The Absentee”. Someone who misses work or turns up late can be a huge problem, especially when shifts are involved. This is an example where hard facts are easy to gather and objective assessments can be made. Again, listening to the person’s situation is important. There might be a temporary issue – illness in the family for instance – but there could be a more serious cause – alcoholism or depression perhaps. If it is possible to alter the working day, this might help, but if the problem is more severe, bring some experts in – do not try any amateur psychology!

A project manager should be a “rudder”, steering the project through the triple constraint. However, experienced project managers often feel like “propellers”, pushing the project every step of the way. This is due to having “Apathetic” people on the team. For a PMP®, this can really make life difficult. An apathetic person can depress the whole team and drag their heels so much that the project manager diverts work elsewhere in order to get it done in time. With stakeholders, these appear as “neutral” in the Stakeholders’ Engagement Assessment Matrix (remember this from your PMP® training?).

As with any other problem behaviour, it is best to confront this. Assemble your facts – the person did not contribute at any design meetings; s/he produced a very poor document, etc. At the meeting, determine whether the person is unable to do the work or unwilling. Once you determine to reason for the apathetic behaviour, you are in a much better position to rectify it. Similarly, neutral stakeholders need to be convinced to support the project. Again, the project manager can help to tilt the balance by spending time with the stakeholder and promoting the goals of the project.

We will continue our list of problem behaviours in the next article. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Project Human Resource Management or to consider obtaining a certificate in project management. please visit our training page. For your convenience, we run our project management courses in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. For more details, please contact us directly.


#3438 01/2014-07/2022