Working With Resistant & Difficult Staff


“Working with Difficult and Resistant Staff” (Eller & Eller, 2011) outlines the mindsets and behaviors of various types of staff members in the educational setting, allowing readers to not only reflect on their colleagues and current work environment, but themselves as well.

Staff Types and Behaviors

When considering why people are the way that they are in the workplace, Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (1986) provided the idea that “people regulate their level and distribution of effort in accordance with the effects they expect their actions to have. As a result, their behavior is better predicted from their beliefs than from the actual consequences of their actions” (Bandura, 1986, p. 129). In this way, what individuals experience, how they reflect on their experiences, and gain “insight into one's underlying motives, it seems, is more like a belief conversion than a self-discovery process (Bandura, 1986, p. 5). Therefore, when observing the different types of staff members in a school, it makes sense to consider that “it is natural that the people working in our schools will construct their own beliefs and behaviors based on their experiences” (Eller & Eller, 2011, pp. 3-4). This begins to help us understand why they are the way that they are.

“The Underminer acts supportive in your presence but [makes] negative comments about you or the school behind your back” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 11), showing a passive-aggressive approach to situations. Furthermore, they can have influence over other staff members, potentially creating a larger group of “Underminers” (Eller & Eller, 2011) around the school, negatively affecting the culture and attitude toward change.  

“The Contrarians” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 21) are “people who seem to embrace conflict and always want to argue” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 21). They want to appear credible, having a more egotistical approach to arguing, which energizes them. They might even be so bold to interrupt a meeting that could potentially get the purpose of the meeting off track.

“The Recruiters” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 33) “...would rather get involved in something negative than not belong to anything at all” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 33). With Recruiters, they find confidence and power in numbers, taking vulnerable and new staff members through the negative processing with them and forming a clique. These individuals can seem like, and even begin to feel as though they have “power over or are spokespeople for the rest of the staff members” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 34).

“The Challenged” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 43) tend to shy away from uncomfortable or challenging tasks, but are also unwilling to learn “tasks or learn skills that fall outside of their comfort zone or their current frame of reference” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 43). It becomes even more of a challenge when Challengers deny that they lack the skills and/or understandings necessary for a leader to support them.

“The On-the-Job-Retirees” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 53) are “...staff members whose major desire is to be left alone and allowed to coast until they are eligible for retirement”  (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 53). These individuals are unmotivated, inefficient, and sometimes resistant. This will inevitably “affect the attitudes of others on your staff” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 61), giving the impression that you accept such behavior and that excuses like retirement work.

“The Resident Expert” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 63) are “people who seem to have knowledge about almost every topic and want to share their opinions without even being asked to share them” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 63). These individuals believe to know it all, which can lead to them ignoring correct implementations of initiatives and expectations, lacking responsibility in any situation they might be wrong, and making excuses as to why they cannot prove their abilities.

“The Unelected Representatives” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 73) tend to be the speakers for the entire staff and involved in everyone’s business. This can not only cause for them to have a wide platform to speak negatively, but it can also silence others who may have important views.

“The Whiners and Complainers” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 83) can be relentless with their consistent negative views. They tend to find fault in everything while never taking responsibility. There are no solutions with these people, only problems.

Out of all of these different types of staff members, a leader must be diligent in their proactivity.

Proactive Leadership

Leaders are just as prone to succumbing to their own frames of reference as teachers are. Therefore, they must be cognizant that they keep an open mind toward all staff members.

Clear communication is helpful to staff members who may shutdown and see change as a negative situation, or hear your message differently than how you intended. “Eliminating ambiguity when implementing new ideas or change” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 7) should be an effort taken by all leaders. Furthermore, when change does occur, transitioning and implementing the change (e.g. programs, initiatives) must provide guidance and empathy from the leader. “Assessing previous change efforts to find out the level of support- if any- these people have received can be helpful to you as you begin to understand their perspective and develop strategies to productively work with them” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 8). This provides a great platform for a culture of collaboration and teamwork.

Teamwork. Having a problem-solving process available for staff, letting your staff know of “your interest in resolving the concern” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 36), and using your staff’s “strengths to influence the perceptions and behaviors” within your school can cultivate positive collaboration. Also, checking in with staff members who may be struggling, as well as providing “multiple opportunities for staff members to learn about the details and strategies associated with the new initiatives” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 47) may help them feel heard, supported, and confident in working with others.

Confrontation. Confronting the matter at hand with the specific individual in a professional way shows them that “ must address their negative behaviors while avoiding unnecessary public confrontation” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 31) and that you are not afraid to do it. Meeting with individual who could potentially be creating a negative culture in the school straightaway is best, as it allows for them to see that their leader is observant, is willing to talk to them about issues, and can help develop a plan to solve problems. “Appropriately challenge [the individual] to provide more detail about their claims”  (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 68) or what they may be struggling with, “to substantiate their complaints” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 89), while letting them know “that they cannot speak for others on the staff” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 76) and you are here to speak with them individually.

Communication. “Make sure you are providing accurate and timely information to everyone on your staff to minimize the anxiety level of your staff members” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 76). “Make it a regular practice to meet with staff members individually so that they can give you their feedback or share any concerns they have”  (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 76). Allowing for reflective opportunities to either build their reflective skills, or offer them time to do that, can be powerful. This opportunity can allow for the individual to break down the issues they have and see them from another perspective or on a smaller scale.

The Most Effective Activities

Having “Norms” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 37) sets the ground rules for meetings and projects. An important aspect of these norms are that they focus on keeping everyone on track during the meeting in order to achieve efficiency, while challenging no negative processing after the meeting. These practices can help build a culture of problem-solving opportunities.

The nature of the activities “Bridging the Gap” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 71) and “How’s It Going?” (Eller & Eller, 2011, p. 106) allow for reflectiveness to commence among individuals and groups. Being able to have a broken down process that prompts those interacting with it to actively reflect can be impractical to shifting perceptions, acting as an antecedent to positive processing in the future.

The content of “Working with Difficult and Resistant Staff” (Eller & Eller, 2011) was insightful. The breakdown of the various types of staff members, how a leader can make or break those negative practices, and the activities provided to help build an organization’s effectiveness, efficiency, and inevitably, culture, are impactful. Moreover, the format of this particular kind of content makes it easily understandable and applicable to leaders in the field.


Eller, J. F., & Eller, S. A. (2011). Working with difficult and resistant staff. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.