Working with difficult people

At some stage of your life, you’re going to come across someone at work who you just don’t see eye-to-eye with. Whether that is because you hold differing opinions on how things should be done, different personalities, or different approaches to work. Most people can handle little differences (after all we are all unique in our own way!). However, when these differences create grievances, issues or conflict that affect workplace performance and productivity that is when measures need to be taken to try and resolve the conflict.

A few years ago I worked with a woman that I found to be very difficult, and at the time she was my manager. She was what I would call a ‘control freak’. She would frequently follow up on my assignments and address them with a sense of urgency (even if they were not urgent). She would often stand behind my desk to see what I was working on, would dictate responses for me to repeat to clients over the phone and if I solved problems on my own she would often get annoyed that I had not informed her in the first place of the problem, even though I had the ability to amend it! I even remember a situation where she told me I should try wearing my makeup a different way and that on Casual Fridays I dressed a little ‘too casually’. I felt like this woman was out to get me it and it would often leave me feeling nervous and anxious whenever she was near me.

I have heard many other stories from friends and colleagues of other “difficult people”.

• Slackers – those who may not pick up enough of the workload and rely on others to do it for them or the person who always relies on others to make the decisions

• “I’m always right” – there can also be that stubborn person who always thinks their opinion is right (don’t we love those!)

• Constant complainers – always looking at the negative or the person who nit-picks at everything

• or worst case scenario, there is that colleague who doesn’t like you and they make it clear they don’t like you!

But when an individual’s behaviour affects the way you do your job, like mine did, that is when steps need to be taken. Being passive or dismissive or utterly just shutting off from the problem never resolves it. In my naivety, by not addressing the problem, I made it worse:

• I became nervous at work, and especially around my manager I found that the more I concentrated on trying not to be clumsy or make a mistake in her presence the more I would.

• I started to lose confidence in myself because I felt like I must not be capable of doing the job because she was always checking up on me.

• I stopped trying to speak up or defend myself or offer an opinion because I didn’t think it mattered.

• I became bitter towards her.

Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins in Harvard Business Review offered this advice on how to manage difficult people:

• Give feedback. Explain to your co-worker what you’re seeing and experiencing. Describe the impact of his/her behaviour on you and provide suggestions for how he/she might change.

• Focus on work, not the person. You need to get the work done despite your peer’s style, so don’t waste time wishing he/she would change. Concentrate on completing the work instead.

• Ask for commitment. At the end of a meeting ask everyone (not just the troublemaker) to reiterate what they are going to do and by when. Sometimes peer pressure can keep even the most passive-aggressive person on task. (in the event you are working with a passive-aggressive type)

Keep Your Composure, or Walk Away

HBR also went on to outline the importance of not losing your temper or over-reacting to a situation in an open office environment. Be aware of who is within viewing range and if taking a deep breath doesn’t work, step outside for a moment or go for a walk. How many times have we lost our ‘cool’ and really regretted it?

If you are currently dealing with a recent conflict with a colleague, HBR offers these three steps:

• Identify common ground. Point out what you both agree on at the beginning of the conversation. This may be a shared goal or a set of operating rules.

• Hear your co-worker out. Allow your colleague to share his/her opinion and explain his/her point of view. Don’t disagree with individual points he/she makes; listen to the whole story.

• Propose a solution. Use the information you gathered in the conversation to offer a resolution. This should incorporate his/her perspective and be different from what you originally thought.

I only found resolve and respect for my previous manager after we traveled to Canberra for a conference and we were one-on-one. We had dinner together one evening and she was able to open up to me about her personal aspirations as well as career. She also made note of how bad she would feel sometimes about the way she spoke to me or treated me. She found me hard to understand at times. One thing that I came to reflect upon was that because I was feeling uncomfortable, it would often cause me to give off a very cold and unwelcoming vibe when my manager was around which made me realise I was making matters worse. If I had also spoken up to her sooner about how I felt I’m sure it would have resolved the issue a lot sooner. We both needed to make the effort to try to understand the other person and find common ground.

Have you ever had to work with a difficult person? How did you overcome or adapt to it?