Q&A: Veteran Administrators Give Advice on Managing Difficult People

By Joetta Sack-Min

Stephanie Johnson and Diane Watkins have a combined seven decades of experience as teachers, principals and school administrators, where they learned to deal with many difficult personalities at all levels. Dr. Johnson (below), an assistant professor of education at Virginia’s Hampton University, and Ms. Watkins (at right), director of assessment and accountability with the Chesapeake, Va., school system, recently took questions and shared their experiences with the Learning First Alliance:

LFA: Please tell us a little bit about your backgrounds and your experience with managing difficult employees.

Johnson & Watkins: Both of us have extensive experience as principals but many years as classroom teachers prior to becoming administrators in a variety of school buildings in various school divisions.  Stephanie has spent the last five years in higher education at a local university preparing prospective administrators for the challenges they will face. Diane has spent several years in her district's leadership as a director of Title I schools, assessment and accountability and school improvement. These positions have afforded both of us the opportunity to experience the climate of every school in our division. These responsibilities have been a segue into hearing the voices of administrators as they try to rationalize how to deal with the many issues pertaining to staff.

As leaders are aware, running an organization automatically forces us to deal with the management of difficult employees. Being difficult can be as simple as refusing to follow the policy made by the school divisions or as complex as quietly bullying adults to the point that employees are leaving the organization and the leader cannot pinpoint exactly why. The success of the organization is purely based on how we manage the human resources.

LFA: You’ve identified the top 10 different types of people who have difficult, annoying, troubling and downright bullish behaviors that impede the work of their colleagues. How did you come up with this list? 

Johnson & Watkins: These scenarios were based on actual staff members that one or both of us faced.  Our professional collaboration grew into a supportive friendship where we could readily seek advice from each other on dealing with the difficult people in our building.  We learned early in our careers that the difficult people are the ones that drain your time and energy and prevent you from focusing on instruction.

These people are from every walk of life. They are from the secretaries and custodians to the auxiliary staff and contractors. It is a balancing game that only an administrator can appreciate. This matter can be mind-boggling if not addressed in a timely manner. The administration MUST address what can be accepted and will not for the good of the organization. 

LFA: You’ve given us some great advice for dealing with these troublemakers if they are your employees. But what if a person is a peer, a superior, or worse, your boss? 

Johnson & Watkins: We are actually often asked this question from teachers and assistant principals who are struggling with their own leader.  Because it came up so frequently, we actually revised our NAESP presentation to include a segment dealing with what if the most difficult person in the building is you?  People often do not do the self-reflection to realize that their personality traits are difficult.  One thing that we remind people in those difficult situations with their superior sounds like a simple cliché, but it is true: You cannot control what another person does or says, but you CAN control your reaction to it and cannot let it make you bitter or insubordinate.  Admittedly, it sounds easier than done but you have to maintain a respectful posture and not let unfair treatment turn you into a negative person.  Even our difficult experiences were growth opportunity.  When encountered with situations like that ourselves, we have simply stored it in a mental file cabinet as a reminder of what NOT to do when we were given the privilege of leading others. I.e., let this be a lesson of what not to be. Of course, in any situation of sexual and other forms of serious harassment in the workplace, the person has an obligation to get the Human Resources Department involved.

LFA: What can you do if someone has more than one difficult trait?

Johnson & Watkins: Many difficult people are difficult in more than one way.  As all of the traits can be toxic in the workplace, we would advise to observe your staff and see what seems to be causing the most damage and taking the most time to address.  A work bully may take precedent over the chronically late teacher for the moment.  If you are a new administrator, you especially want to prioritize the things you will tackle and change them deliberately and slowly. 

It is always important to prioritize difficult situations with staff members. Those members that would have multiple traits of difficulty may need employee assistance through their school division's Human Resource Department because that might uncover mental health concerns.

LFA: Workplace bullying is one of the most serious offenses. Can you tell us a little about how to identify a bully, how to document their behaviors, and how to deal with this person, whether you are a supervisor or a peer?

Johnson & Watkins: The first step is to establish a relationship with the members of your staff so that they will let you know of these challenges that typically occur when you are not around.  However, it is important to ensure your presence at team meetings and in gathering places.  Next, establish a zero tolerance for this behavior.  Call the offender in and establish your expectations. Document these conversations and involve the Human Resources Department if necessary. Look at the teams you place these people on to protect others. 

Bullies have strong personalities so they cannot be placed on teams where there are other strong personalities. Sometimes that will create a balance while other times staff members begin to butt heads which brings on another kind of problem. When you are a peer in this situation, you try to resolve this at the team level but when it cannot be resolved at that level then the principal/supervisor has to raise the issue with the bully behavior outright based on the characteristics. 

LFA: How can you address a negative school climate where these types of behaviors are common? Is there a point where you should quit or try to transfer to a new school?

Johnson & Watkins: You tend to find these behaviors thriving in a culture where the leadership is not strong and expectations are not established and followed up on. It is important that principals have a good relationship with all staff members. It is only out of those relationships that you can praise the people who are doing what they are supposed to do and have difficult conversations with those who don’t.  You also will form a strong team bond with good relationships and find that the members of the team often shut down workplace negativity before you even have to intervene because they are empowered.  Each individual knows when they are in an environment where they no longer feel is a good fit for them. We advise that when you have taken all of the steps to take a problem to the leader with no relief and feel that you can no longer be a contributing part of that environment, it may be time for a change.  However, use caution in jumping into new setting… bullies are everywhere!

LFA: If you are a new principal or administrator, what are the first steps you should take to ensure a positive and productive work environment?

Johnson & Watkins; We may sound like a broken record but good relationships are the key.  The personal touch is important. Get to know each person in the building, not just teaching staff. Get to know their challenges and something about their families so you can converse with them on a meaningful level. Acknowledge their contributions and give them permission to “grow and go and glow” to higher positions they aspire to. Model the way with your own strong work ethic and positive character traits. The bottom line… the work in our schools is hard. The staff has to be there simply because they want to work for you and believe in what you do for the school and want to be a part of it. 

LFA: Anything else you would like to add?

Johnson & Watkins: Failure to deal with difficult people on your staff is the quickest way to erode staff morale. Everyone in your building knows who the challenging people are, and they are watching to see if you will lead and deal with the issues. The problems the difficult people in our schools cause can be the most time consuming and hardest to deal with but they are a priority to address so you can focus on giving children the best instruction possible. That only happens in a school where the culture is cohesive and harmonious. 

Sometimes it takes a little while to realize and categorize the challenging and difficult staff members. Once you do, continue to be positive as a model and share the importance of respecting others.