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One of the main reasons people are happy at work is because they like their boss and coworkers. When they get along, feel part of a team. Even an unsatisfying job becomes more acceptable when you enjoy the people you work with.
On the flipside, having to deal with difficult personalities is one of biggest causes of unhappiness on the job. You’ll probably be unhappy at work even when the work itself is rewarding. Sometimes it’s easier for people to leave a job than deal with others who annoy and/or harass them.
Recently 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 first installment of this series is my interview with Vivian Scott author of Conflict Resolution at Work for Dummies and principle of Vivian Scott Mediation, LLC which provides a wide-range of mediation services
CI: What are three ways to deal with a difficult boss?
VS: First, a lot of people bristle at the thought of showing the boss any kind of compassion, but they should know that there are smart, strategic reasons for applying a little humility with higher-ups. Here are three good ones.
Try to see things from their perspective and consider the real motivation behind their behavior. That will be the key to unlocking how to handle things.
For instance, if your boss is a micromanager, she may be concerned with her reputation or care deeply about the final product. Knowing that, you can deal with her by steering her in the right direction. Consider what she does well and then say, “Where you really add value is with xyz.” Get her focused on areas that have the potential to help you. Create check-in points at the beginning of a project. If she’s not crazy about doing that, ask if she’s willing to give it a shot just this once and if she’s still uneasy, ask what would make her feel comfortable with fewer check-ins. Finally, ask for her overall vision or goal and pledge to make decisions based on that goal. Let her know that you believe an important part of your job is to make her look good and she may be more trusting.
What about an egomaniac? It’s very likely that he’s insecure, looking for respect, or bringing a whole lot of little red wagon issues from his past into the office. So, how might you deal with him? Easy: appeal to his ego! Remember not to take his need for attention personally or think that any attention going to him is attention not going to you. Instead, find a way to share in the attention he works so hard to garner. Say things like, “I’d like your opinion on…” and “I think you could really help me with this.” If he thinks he can get a little credit from what you do, he’ll do a lot for you. Obviously, don’t forget to give him credit for things along the way.
If your boss is someone you consider to be ineffective or clueless, it might be because she’s facing too much responsibility too soon. She may have been put in a position she doesn’t have the skills for or maybe she lacks the information needed to do her job. Deal with her by having a little compassion and show her how to help you. Have a few, “What are your thoughts on, abc”-type conversations so you can subtly coach her in areas you feel she needs development. When you know the answers to something ask, “What would you like me to do about this… x or y?” Giving her the answer is a great way to demonstrate how she might approach similar situations in the future and gets you to the finish line quicker. Take her through the pros and cons of each choice so she can see how you’re attacking the decision-making process and she can hear about your experience with similar problems at the same time. Blurting out what she doesn’t know and how experienced you are will probably backfire so put on a mentor hat and respectfully help her along.
And, then there are workaholics. The motivation for a workaholic can be anything from insecurities to an addictive personality. If you’re dealing with a workaholic start by limiting conversation about your family and friends, cut to the chase whenever you need to talk to him. Always be ready with information and don’t put off tomorrow what you can get done today. You might also think about adjusting your work schedule to fit his or find time to get work done when he’s not around (like early mornings or after the kids are in bed) so you don’t have to keep him waiting for information. With that said, helping him prioritize will help lighten your assignment load. If he’s given you six things to accomplish in the next week, take ten minutes with him to ask his advice on what he sees as the most pressing. It’s not unusual for workaholics to say everything is equally important so let him know you’re asking because you want to make sure you’re focused on whatever is going to make the best impression on his behalf. Approach everything from a business perspective. Rather than saying you’re getting burned out by the extra hours and your personal life is suffering, say something like, “I’m concerned that workload is affecting quality and has the potential to erode the team’s reputation, so I’d like to brainstorm how we could manage the tasks better.” Be sure to have at least three solutions to propose because workaholics usually don’t react well to blank stares.
If you work for someone with any of these management styles or a boss who’s overly-dramatic, someone who misunderstands the real issues, a guy who looks the other way, or a dismissive supervisor, applying a simple formula may make your life easier. Namely, figure out what the value or motivation is behind his behavior and then craft or mold your behavior to get what you want by giving him what he wants. Remember to always attack the problems, not the person.
CI: What are three ways to deal with a difficult staff member?
VS: Managers have a responsibility to both the team as a whole and the individuals reporting to them. To expect everyone to develop at the same rate is unrealistic so if you’re having a difficult time with a subordinate, first consider her individual strengths and areas for improvement. Then, keep put on your mentoring hat and keep the conversation between the two of you.
If you’re dealing with an employee who is arrogant and finds every opportunity she can to point out how her ideas would have worked better than yours, this is someone you want on your side. Rather than sitting her down and wielding your power as a means to shut her up, use her bravado for your benefit. Have a brainstorming session and talk through things to feed her ego a little bit. Then, choose the idea you prefer and ask how she would see herself supporting it. Let her know you’ll “need her help” getting the rest of the team on board and she’s likely to become your biggest fan.
Regardless of personality types you may find yourself dealing with an otherwise attentive employee who’s missing details and turning in sloppy work. Seek to understand. Is there something going on outside of the workplace that may have him focused elsewhere? Has he taken on new duties and is afraid to ask for help? Open-ended questions in this case are much better than lectures. Start the conversation with something like, “I noticed the reports haven’t been up to your usual standard and I’m curious what’s going on.” Let him talk and the next steps will probably become obvious.
CI: What are three ways to deal with a difficult co-worker?
VS: First, remember that when you’re having difficulty with a peer (or anyone for that matter) that he’s not “against you”, he’s simply “for himself.” That should help you approach the situation with less venom and a calm demeanor.
Talking it through is always a good idea. But, before you do that, consider a few things. What might be your role in the problem? Even if you feel you’ve done nothing wrong, perhaps acknowledging you’ve let the situation drag on will help ease the tension. Apologize sincerely for your part and ask if the other person is willing to talk about solutions that would work for BOTH of you.
Address issues when they creep up rather than stockpiling and then presenting a festering mess to your coworker. Sift through the problems first, though, to get at what’s really at issue for you. If you’re mostly concerned about your reputation, then focus on that rather than every little thing the person has done in the past two years. And, always approach with a desire to hear what the other person has to say rather than swooping in with “stop it or else” opening statements.
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?
VS: I’m always hopeful that any situation—no matter how tense—can be worked out. But that takes willing parties. If you’ve tried understanding things from the other’s perspective, had more than a few conversations about resolving the situation in a way that works for both of you, and taken a hard look at your own behaviors that may need to change and the problems still exist, start planning for a graceful exit.
If you’re the one leaving, say something like, “I appreciate our efforts to try to work things out. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that I may not be a fit for this job, so I’d like to talk about a plan to transition out that doesn’t leave anyone hanging.” If you’re the one doing the firing, say something like, “I think we’ve given this a good shot and it’s time now to talk about how to transition you to your next opportunity.”