Dealing with Difficult People at Work – 10 Tips

Conflict caused by the inability to manage difficult people at work can waste huge amounts of time, energy and productivity and can lead to long-term effects on the organisation.

Difficult people or rather, difficult behaviours can come in all sizes and forms, from aggression, indiscipline, de-motivators, working to rule, rejection of change, back-biters, gossips etc.

What could be termed as “difficult behaviour” is often referred to as negative behaviour and is often manifested as such.

The question that needs to be addressed is negative or difficult for whom?

The person(s) who displays negative behaviour can often feel that this behaviour actually gets them somewhere – a method of displaying their disdain or disagreement with the status quo, so for them the means is quite positive.

It may well be that their behaviour actually goes against the grain of usual social behaviours or the corporate culture of the organisation, but this, at least for them, is a way of showing their feelings, albeit in a negative fashion.

Most human behaviour has a positive intention – however, the positive intention can be quite easily transformed into negative behaviour by context.

Statements such as “I’m just doing my job” are illustrations of just that and can be used at times to justify the almost injustifiable.

So how do we go about dealing with or managing difficult people at work?

To start with, people are generally brought up and hard-wired to avoid conflict – indeed certain cultures such as the British use various stealth weapons to avoid conflict at all costs – ever heard of understatement or manipulation?

The Brits are brought up not to make a scene at all costs, but this in turn often leads to tension and internal wranglings when things aren’t going as they should do.

Instead of saying that what has happened is a catastrophe, as for example the French might, the Brits would probably state that it was “a bit of a nuisance”!

If you’re a Brit communicating with a Brit, you can easily understand this along with the famous change of subject that often follows in order to dodge the potential confrontation – the dreaded “C” word!

If, however, you are from another culture with a more direct communication style – this could be very confusing and frustrating for you.

In turn, some cultures state that the Brits are hard to fathom out as “you can never tell what they are really thinking”. Well, yes and no, but it takes practice and often an intuition that is finely tuned.

Ok, let’s leave the cultural aspect and get back on track with the subject of difficult people, here are some tips on handling and managing difficult people:

1. SPEND TIME – Difficult people are being just that in order to achieve something. Their difficult behaviour often is a manifestation of their inability to act otherwise or to communicate exactly what they want or don’t like about certain situations. Spending time finding out what is at the root of the behaviour can sometimes reverse negative behaviour patterns. Encourage people to talk about their feelings – not just how they are on a casual basis but HOW they feel about decisions and contexts at work. Encouraging free and open communication can often kill off negativity at source. Dealing with conflict directly is not always an easy thing to do, but it can save a lot of heartache in the long run. It also eliminates the prejudice and perceptions that negativity can foster – trying to imagine why someone behaves in a certain way is less accurate that actually tackling the problem head-on. care needs to be takes as to HOW, WHEN, and WHY conflict is addressed.

2. SOLVE PROBLEMS – DON’T DODGE THEM – Learn to deal with difficult behaviour before it becomes a real issue – ignoring problems won’t make them go away. Don’t let things get to the point where the problem spreads and affects others. Our upbringing and culture may have taught us to avoid conflict but if we don’t take the bull by the horns, we will experience both the pain and guilt of not dealing with the problem accompanied by the trepidation of actually confronting the problem.

3. GO FOR THE WIN-WIN – In order for the team to continue to function, the incidences of difficult behavior must be handled in a way that allows neither party to lose face. It is not the winning of the battle that will enable you to win the war, but the ability to facilitate long term change that will effectively eradicate difficult behavior.

4. LOOK FOR COMMON GROUND – If difficult behavior, as often is the case, entails aggression, then the last solution is to opt for the “fighting fire with fire” method and to be aggressive back in an attempt to solve the problem. Meeting aggressive behaviour with aggression will rarely solve the situation, be assertive whilst always allowing room for different stances and opinions. Take a step out of the situation and always endeavor to stay objective, focusing on the behavior which isn’t working and not the personality whilst stating facts that are free of emotive perceptions. The aim is to solve problems together – not to implement unilateral damage-control patches that will remain in place in the short-term.

5. SHOW THE BENEFITS – In order for any long-term change to happen, you need to be able to show valid benefits for all parties – it’s not just going to make your life easier, but there are huge benefits for the whole team (including the person who is being difficult). Most people who demonstrate difficult behavior do not feel good about it, but cannot always see a face-saving way out – you need to be able to help them to change as everyone will end up feeling better when the dysfunction in the team is neutralised. Often the first step is the hardest to take, if we can help in this AND demonstrate the benefits, we are on to a winner.

6. UNDERSTAND RESISTANCE – Explore and find out why a person is being behaving difficultly, if you don’t understand the real reasons, you will have a very hard job implementing change. Often, the real ¬†reasons and motives for difficult behaviour are very hard to uncover, but the solutions are often in the hand of the difficult personality. Enlist them to help you implement solutions by asking HOW things could be changed, once you have arrived at a clear focus for action, valuing their contribution, values and opinions can also help empower them to be responsible for the outcomes.

7. LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITY – Sometimes difficult behaviour is a clear sign that people have opinions that are different from the mainstream, although they may not know how to effectively voice their disaccord. Difficult behaviour at least demonstrates that the person has an opinion and that they are thinking about things – although the end result may not be desirable. Use this as an opportunity by challenging in a professional and respectful way to enable change. After all, who is to say that they are wrong? This could also be an excellent opportunity to see things in another light.

8. REVENGE IS SWEET – This is totally wrong, in the long-term. As Confuscious said, “When embarking on a voyage of revenge – dig two graves”. Even difficult people work well with some people in the organisation – if you are one of them, then you’re already winning half the battle, if you’re not, then you need to work to ensure you are. Nobody wins in the long-term in a revenge vendetta, you can even create enemies from the people who you work well with at present – which has to be counter-productive.

9. INTEGRATION NOT SEGREGATION – Putting difficult people into quarantine by ignoring them or treating them with disdain will drive the problems underground and can give justification for difficult behaviour. Avoid labeling and stereotyping people or assuming that some people are just like that! Don’t fall into the trap of tarring everyone with the same brush and don’t confuse behaviour with personality – a person may be acting difficult but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are indeed difficult. Bringing people back into the fold, instead of pushing them towards the margins will help the team to work together more effectively and consequently can help in canceling out difficult behaviour instead of exacerbating the situation.

10. SPEND TIME AND BRIDGE THE GAP – One of the keys to dealing with difficult people is the time that is spent in a sincere, open, positive and integral way with people, listening and speaking with them whilst giving others the opportunity to speak. Trust needs to be built by giving recognition where necessary and fostering open many-to-many communication – in this way you will help build a reputation as a bridge-builder, a listener and someone who gives the opportunity for others to communicate. Ensure that your communication style is open to listening and understanding but clearly action orientated in order to avoid wasting time on needless detail and bad-feeling.

Dealing with difficult people can be an excellent learning experience which can be better appreciated once we have actually gone through the experience and effectively reflected on it. You won’t get it right every time, but you can build on errors as a way of learning. There may be times when difficult people cannot be managed or dealt with – or rather, when difficult people do not want to change, but giving as much support, understanding and opportunity for change – well, you cannot do much else!

© Active Learning 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction by permission only.

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