7 Key Tips for Dealing with Difficult Situations

You are a good leader or manager.  You strive to do your best and allow your team and individual team members to perform to their potential.  You don’t believe it will always be easy.

You understand as a leader or manager you that there will be difficult situations to deal with from time to time.  These difficult situations might include, for example:

• Dealing with poor individual or team performance

• Trying to improve an organisation that is perceived to be failing

• A process that it is not working

• Staff or other resource shortages

• Adverse media coverage

Is there a success formula that is going to work every time and guarantee success? In truth probably not.

At the same time there are some steps that you can take to effectively deal with those difficult or challenging situations when leading and managing.

Tip 1: Establish facts first

When difficult situations arise, it is all too easy to jump to solution mode too quickly.  While there may be a limited amount of times when fast action is absolutely necessary, your first step to successful resolution it to establish facts.  Remember that facts as opposed to hearsay or opinion are verifiable.

Be alert to being swayed by the opinions of those who are strong characters.

When people make claims or assertions, ask for specific examples of what happened and when it happened.  Often you find that there isn’t a lot of substance behind what is being said.

Tip 2: Ask lots of questions

Questions, especially the short powerful variety are a great way of getting to the core issue rather than all the detail that someone is trying to provide to you.  Think of it a bit like peeling an onion, each layer is getting you closer to the core.

Open questions are much better way of getting to the core of the issue.  These typically are questions such as:

  1. When did this issue arise?
  2. How did it impact on what you were trying to achieve?
  3. What would be an ideal outcome from your perspective?
  4. What options are there?
  5. How can we move forward?

Tip 3: Actively listen

There is little point in asking great questions if you are not actively listening to what is being said.  Resist the temptation to jump in before you have properly listened to the different points of view.

Most of the time we listen passively or not at all, simply going on the defensive or push our points of view.

If you can listen with intent and pay attention to what is being said and also the body language, you will do a much better job at listening.

Better listening leads to better understanding and a better response in my experience.

Tip 4: Avoid pre-judgement

We all, if we are honest will form some judgements immediately.  While these might be right at the end of the day, don’t let pre-judgement get in the way of establishing the real issues.

Aim to stay open minded and objective rather than assuming or guessing.

Tip 5: Act professionally

The challenge for you is to remain professional at all times.  A good test of this is to ask yourself how you would like to be treated if you were not the manager or leader but an aggrieved party.

Think also about the longer term consequences for you and your career if you deal with a difficult situation unprofessionally.

People will respect you more if you try to always be professional in your dealings with them, even on a difficult issue.

Tip 6: Aim for win-win

While this is not always possible, you should aim to find solutions that don’t result in a feeling from one party that they have lost while another has won.  This might require some careful negotiation around what would constitute a good outcome for all those involved.

Accept that there may be situations where you have to be very direct but make these the exception rather than the norm.

Tip 7: Remember there is no one size fits all approach

Each situation is different.  While there might be some common ground, remember there is unlikely to a one size fits all approach to difficult situations.   Adapt your approach depending on the situation.

Good planning and preparation will help make sure that you are able to adapt while dealing with the situation or issue.

Bottom Line – Handling difficult situations is just part and parcel of managing and leading.  Where do you need to focus your attention in terms of developing your competence?

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About the Author Duncan Brodie

Since 2006 I’ve worked with in excess of 8,000 accountants and professionals in workshops, seminars and one to one helping them land their next jobs and become better leaders, presenters and business partners. Before that I spent 25 years in accountancy climbing the career ladder from Payments Clerk to FD. I’m a CIMA Fellow, Certified Professional Coach and Team Coach Facilitator.

Leave a Comment:

Paul Hayward says 7 September 2009

So, if you are a leader and you find you are dealing with poor performance, or an organisation that’s failing, or a process that’s not working, or a shortage of resources, or adverse media coverage – then I have to ask – what have you been doing, ot not doing, to get into such a state in the first place?

Before you rush off in a misplaced effort to fix everyone else, perhaps your examination of the entrails should start closer to home?

Duncan Brodie says 7 September 2009

Hi Paul

Thanks for your post and perspectives.

I am sure that even the best run organisations face challenges from time to time and it is better to be as prepared as you can than not in my view.


Helmine Liebl says 22 April 2010

Hey, thanks a lot for the tip. extremely helpful. this should be significantly more significant inside the longer term, i assume. Helmine Liebl

Kamala Kirushna says 7 November 2011

Thanks for posting the 7 tips

Thangam says 11 April 2013

Thanks for the tips

Natalie says 24 February 2014

Great advice! I actually recently wrote an article about dealing with difficult situations using the Resilience Formula. If you’re interested feel free to check it out here https://www.nourish-mindbody.net/?p=111

Janet Ali Khan says 13 October 2015

Thank you for sharing these helpful tips…so simple to understand and so practical to apply in day-to-day living.

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