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Unhappy at Work? It Might Be the People (Part 3)

Getting along with difficult personalities at work

unhappy at work 3How do you feel on Sundays? Are you enjoying the last day of the weekend or are you already dreading Monday morning? If you detest going into the office each day it might be the people you work with.

Being happy or unhappy at work is more than just liking what you do. It has a lot to do with the people you work with. Chances are if you find your boss overbearing or your colleagues annoying you won’t look forward to a day at the office even if you love the work. Conversely, a boring job will be more enjoyable if you like the people you work with.

In today’s 24/7 environment, we’re spending more time dealing with our colleagues than ever before. Even if you’re not clocking in longer hours at the office, chances are you’re in contact with your boss or staff at night and on weekends.

With this in mind, I asked several “people” experts for their advice on how to deal with difficult personalities at the office.  Everyone gave me great suggestions. But, because they came from a variety of different backgrounds, everyone had a little different take on the issue. After going through everyone’s responses, I decided to create a series on How to Work with Difficult People

In the third installment of this series, is my interview with Nabil and Gayle Oudeh, Principals of Centre for Conflict Resolution International Ltd. www.conflictatwork.com

Before getting down to my questions, the Oudehs wanted to offer some general words of advice.

In any type of conflict situation we always advise people to use what we call the LTA Modelä : Listen – Think – Act.  It is important to first listen to what is really going on. With difficult people it is easy to make assumptions based on perceptions, or part of a story, or gossip… and we’re “triggered”. So we need to really listen. Then we need to think. An immediate “knee jerk” reaction to a difficult person or situation usually only makes the situation worse. If we think about what we’re experiencing and why we’re finding this person so difficult, this will also give us the space to think through a more appropriate response. Once we’ve listened to what’s going on, we’ve thought through the situation, then we’re ready to act. And the action is also important. So many people hesitate to act because they think it’s better to just suck it up and let it go. Pretty soon they’re sucking it in so much that they can’t breathe any more!

When faced with any difficult person, the Oudehs suggest following these three steps.

  • Be curious. Consider why they’re doing what they’re doing. Ask whether it’s just you who finds them difficult or if they impact everyone that way. Do they know they’re being difficult or don’t they? Are they targeting you with their behavior or is that just the way they are? Is their behavior vindictive or innocent? Very often, the people we find difficult are the people who do things very differently than we do (i.e. we tend to keep to ourselves and they’re loud and obnoxious and always talking! Or we tend to have a positive, optimistic outlook on life and they’re always complaining! Or we’re “straight shooters” that are open and upfront and they play games and never seem to say what they mean). Being curious can give you some real insight – into the other person and into your own triggers.
  • Call them on their behavior. They may or may not know that they are being difficult – but either way, there is no reason to change if no one tells them how annoying or problematic they’re being. We don’t know how many so-called “difficult people” we’ve dealt with who have said to us, “well, no one ever said anything about it to me. I didn’t know I was bothering anyone.” It’s easy to assume that they should know, and perhaps they should, but if you confront them with their behavior they no longer have any excuses.
  • Change your response. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting change. The same goes with difficult people – if you respond to their behavior in the same way over and over again, the pattern will just keep on going. You might need to start communicating in a different way. You might need to refuse to be a victim anymore. You might need to report the behavior to a higher authority. Look at what you’ve been doing (that hasn’t been working) and do something else.

Following are the Oudehs answers to my questions.

CI: What are three ways to deal with a difficult boss?

NGO:  Speak to them directly about the issue if you can. Depending on what type of difficult boss you’re dealing with, it’s always best to try to address the issue directly. But it’s important not to do this in an accusatory way but in a problem solving way. And always confront them one-on-one. It may seem safer in a group setting but you’re sure to put your boss on the defensive. Try something like: “I’m really unclear about your expectations here and I really want to do the best job I can. I’m wondering if we can find a way to communicate better so that I understand what you need.” This puts you in a joint problem solving position.

Look around at how others are dealing with the difficult boss and see if you can find any pointers. So often there’s someone who’s figured out how to deal with the boss and you can learn from them. It might mean you have to massage the boss’ ego a bit or you have to communicate with them in a specific way, but if they hold the power and you like your job, it might be worth it.

We recognize that these suggestions work with certain types of difficult bosses but not all. The most problematic is the bully boss. With this type of difficult boss it’s important that you inform his/her superiors of your situation and ask for their help. This might mean going to your boss’ boss or HR, etc. You can’t deal with the bully boss by yourself. They need to know that their behavior is unacceptable and that you refuse to be a victim.

CI: What are three ways to deal with a difficult staff member?

NGO: With subordinates it’s all about ground rules. Make sure that your expectations are clear and that they know what the ground rules of the workplace are (how you expect your team to interact, treat each other, etc.). Also be clear on what the consequences are if they do not operate within those ground rules.

Then follow through. If you don’t mean it and are not willing to follow through with it, do not say it or do it. Difficult subordinates thrive in indecisive environments.

Challenge the behavior early and often. Never put yourself in a position of allowing things to grow to the point where you become frustrated and angry. Then you’re more likely to lash out and it will only cause you more headaches and trouble.

CI: What are three ways to deal with a difficult co-worker?

NGO: Make them aware of the impact their behavior has on you. Do not accuse or blame – just explain. This way you will know if they are self aware or oblivious of their behavior. If they were not aware, this may be all you need to do. If they were aware and there were other reasons for their behavior, this may only be step one.

Monitor your own behavior. Make sure that you’re not being difficult yourself. It’s often tempting to react to someone else’s bad behavior by retaliating, or being rude ourselves, or excluding/alienating them. But that just makes us a jerk as well and only intensifies the situation.

If the difficult co-worker is affecting your work in a negative way, you will have to get a supervisor or boss involved. Again, it’s important to go to the boss with a problem-solving attitude. “Sue is acting like a jerk and you have to do something about it!” won’t be nearly as effective as “I seem to be having some difficulty communicating effectively with Sue. I’m not sure how to resolve the situation so I’d like your perspective and any tips you can give me.” It tells your boss that there is a problem but it also tells the boss that you’re taking responsibility for your own actions and that you want to resolve the situation – you’re not just dumping it in the boss’ lap.

CI: When is it time to look for a new position? Or if you’re the boss, when is it time to fire a difficult staff member?

NGO: There are some workplaces that actually perpetuate bad behavior. They may allow the difficult person to carry on because:

  • they’re high achievers
  • they have too much power
  • the corporate culture supports/expects the behavior

If someone is difficult, their behavior may be excused if they are a high achiever. If you document the bad behavior, the company may support you in addressing it. But, if the difficult person has a great deal of power, you may not find anyone with equal or more power willing to address it. And, if the corporate culture actually supports or encourages this type of bad behavior (some companies actually think it makes the employees work harder!) then the situation will not be addressed. If this is the situation, then it’s time to look for a new job.

In the case of a difficult employee, the fact is that an employee’s behavior affects productivity. They may know how to do their job, but if they can’t function within the team, if their behavior is negatively impacting the work environment, it needs to be addressed. As their boss, you have to make them aware of the issue and give them opportunity (and perhaps tools or skills) to rectify the situation. Then it becomes like any other performance issue. If they don’t take heed of your warning and don’t make any effort to change their ways, it’s probably time to replace them.

About Annette Richmond, MA

Annette Richmond, MA, CARW, CCELW, is a Certified Resume Writer, Certified LinkedIn Profile Writer, and former recruiter. Her career advice has been featured by Huffington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes, Business Insider, Monster, Vault, and WSJ. She helps motivated, senior level professionals tell their unique career story. She also serves as executive editor of career-intelligence.com.


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