Project Personality Dis-Order?: Managing Difficult Personalities on Your Project

By Brandon Huff (PMP, CSM), Practice Director, cPrime Inc.

Managing Difficult Personalities on Your Project

Projects are hard enough to manage without having to deal with difficult people.  Sure, they don’t mean to be difficult but often the road to project hell is paved with good intentions, right?

So, how do we best work with difficult team members on a project?  This is often hard as the resources don’t directly report to you and they are in constant movement between projects.  But there are ways to mitigate their less-than-helpful actions and keep your project on track.  Let’s take a closer look at a few key personality types we’ve all encountered on a variety of projects:

Personality types

Negative Nancy

Traits:  Nancy is the eternal pessimist and nothing is ever quite right.  If there’s a problem (real or perceived) she’ll be the first to speak up and make it everyone’s top priority.

How to best work with them:  I’ve found that it’s best to acknowledge her feelings and redirect the topic when Nancy gets negative.  Sure, some of her complaints and problems may be valid but the constant negativity isn’t good for the team and is often very contagious. Acknowledging her feelings and redirecting the conversation removes the negative power her statements may have had and allows the team to focus on the real issues at hand.

Incomplete Ira

Traits:  Ira is a very nice guy but he never completes any tasks and is full of excuses as to why nothing gets done.  He also has a hard time providing status on any of his tasks.

How to best work with them:  Ira is constantly behind for a two potential reasons – lack of organization and a project problem that he can’t resolve.  So, you need to help him with both items to get the most out of Ira. Help him break down his tasks into smaller pieces so he can clearly see what needs to be accomplished (you did this with your WBS, right??).  Meet with Ira regularly to review his progress on the items and address any issues that pop up.  But beware; Ira can quickly become a Negative Nancy if you’re too overbearing with him. Give Ira a sense of ownership of his tasks rather than dictate how he should do them.

Technical Theresa

Traits:  Theresa is very technical and probably the smartest person on your team (other than you, of course).  No one is better technically and that’s a problem for Theresa to stay on topic and not dive into the technical details with every discussion.

How to best work with them:  Theresa’s constant focus on the technical issues creates a numbing lack of attention from much of the team and reduces the productivity of most discussions.  Help Theresa stay focused on technical items and redirect conversations that get too technical for the issues at hand.   Make sure Theresa knows that you appreciate her technical input at the appropriate time to keep her engaged and as helpful as possible.

Stakeholder Steve

Traits:  Steve is your main project stakeholder – and he never lets you forget it with constant changes, questions, and unhelpful comments.  He means well and wants to ensure the project is a success but his constant meddling doesn’t help the team and creates confusion.

How to best work with them:  Steve believes his constant feedback is helpful and that his “minor” changes are for the best of the project (and they may be).  However, to make sure your project stays on track you need to manage Steve’s influence over scope and the team.  Most stakeholders become overly involved when they don’t know the status of the project or have a concern over the scope.  You can manage this with regular formal or informal meetings with Steve to make him comfortable with the progress, technical details, or scope.  Be sure to discuss with him how potential changes impact the team and the negative consequences they may have if scope isn’t closely managed.  Additionally, make sure that you are the point of contact for all project communications from Steve to reduce potential confusion and miscommunication.


What other personalities have you encountered in your projects?  How do you deal with them in a productive way?