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People Management

Dealing With Difficult People

At some point in our careers, most of us are forced to work with someone whose people skills can only be described as atrocious. Sometimes our companies wisely get rid of these people, but they are like weeds: pluck one, and within seconds another will sprout up in its place. The dread that comes with having to regularly interact with someone who is routinely negative, argumentative, stressed, or mean can make your job a wholly unpleasant experience—if you let it.

Your first instinct might be to go out of your way to avoid working with “Mr. Difficult.” If you can pull it off, more power to you. Often, though, this is not an option, and whether Mr. Difficult is your boss, a colleague, or a senior executive, you must prepare for each meeting with him as if you are going into battle. Swallow your apprehension. Remind yourself that no one has the power to control how you feel, and suit up in your armor so that nothing he says or does wounds you deeply. Take a deep breath and walk calmly into Mr. Difficult's office. Speak to him in a controlled, cheerful, and reasonable tone. Get the information you need, and then get out as soon as possible. As we know, negativity and stress can be highly contagious, so do not allow yourself to get sucked in.

Mr. Difficult's arrows can be easier to deflect when he's an equal opportunity shooter, and you realize that you are not the only target. You might even joke about him with your other colleagues who have had the pleasure to work with him directly. However, it's easy to become demoralized when Mr. Difficult saves his best poison just for you. For example, one of my first bosses couldn't stand me. To the best of my knowledge, I didn't do anything to incur her wrath. She was sweet as apple pie to the rest of our colleagues, yet, inexplicably, whenever I came around, she turned into the Wicked Witch of the West.

Unfortunately, this is not unusual in business. Personality clashes often happen. Your best bet in this scenario is to sit down with your Mr. Difficult and have a heart-to-heart. Tell him how you are feeling, assume that he doesn't mean to act like the devil incarnate, and give him the benefit of the doubt. Solicit his feedback regarding how the two of you can improve your relationship, and then give him a chance to do right by you. If this doesn't work and he continues to regularly use you as target practice, remove yourself from the situation (see Chapter 10). No job is worth your self-esteem.

One caveat to all of this: human beings operate with such different styles that it's impossible for us to get along with all of our colleagues all of the time. You could be the most agreeable person on earth, but I guarantee that someone at work will find a reason not to like you. Maybe she isn't blatantly obvious or malicious like Mr. Difficult, but you can feel her negativity just the same. She might walk right past your desk without saying good morning, or she might not engage in friendly conversation with you the way she does with other people in the office. For those of us with a sensitive streak, this type of behavior can be hurtful. What did you do to her anyway? Why won't she give you a fair shot? As natural as it is to fixate on the situation, if it's not affecting your daily work life or your career path, refuse to take it personally, and go about your business as usual. Focus on your reasons for being at work, and save your energy for the people in the office who deserve it.

Criticism Incoming

The sun rises in the morning, and human beings criticize each other. Stick around the corporate world for a while, and you will inevitably participate in this special ritual. What separates the strong employees from the weak, however, is how one copes with criticism. People who deny responsibility and respond with anger and defensiveness hold themselves back personally and professionally. On the other hand, the most successful individuals listen objectively, accept constructive criticism, and look for ways to grow from it. In his book Getting Promoted: Real Strategies for Advancing Your Career, Harry Chambers suggests the following five steps for receiving criticism productively:

  1. Depersonalize the criticism: Repeat to yourself, “It's a specific behavior that's the problem, not me as a person.”
  2. Assertively restate the comments for clarification: Say to the person, “What I heard was that Behavior X is not acceptable.”
  3. Seek guidance: Ask the person, “How could I do that differently? What change would be appropriate?”
  4. Process the input: Ask yourself, “Is this criticism valid? Am I willing to make the change to eliminate the contention?”
  5. Review your progress/seek follow-up: Say to the person, “I'm working hard to bring about the change we talked about. Do you have any suggestions for what else I can do?”

Provided the criticism is meant to help you, be sensitive to what the other person is feeling. It was probably very hard for her to approach you, and you will score major points by trying to make her more comfortable. Also, there's nothing wrong with telling her how you feel. If the criticism isn't justified, say so frankly, without letting your emotions get the best of you.

One last point on criticism: Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right—for you'll be criticized anyway.” Keep in mind that if you are accomplishing something, you will most likely be criticized by someone who secretly wishes that she were as important as you are. Take it as a compliment, for it means you are worthy of attention.

Calming an Angry Person

Customer service representatives have to contend with angry people frequently, and my friend Jan, who spends all day on the telephone, offered me some valuable advice for neutralizing someone who is out of control. According to Jan, the best thing you can do is acknowledge the person's anger and listen attentively without interrupting. “If you let the customer vent, she'll eventually quiet down,” Jan says. “Don't respond with defensiveness or annoyance. Show empathy for her predicament and assure her that you'll make it your business to fix the situation.” Jan also clued me in on some things not to say:

  • “Calm down”: This is bound to elicit the response, “Don't tell me to calm down!”
  • “That's not my fault”: Whether true or not, the angry person will not appreciate hearing you deny responsibility. She is looking for your help.
  • “You're way out of line”: Needless to say, this will just prolong the argument.
  • “If you just hold on, I'll transfer you to…”: This lack of urgency and personal ownership will annoy the angry person. She wants you to come up with an action plan now.

“The key point,” Jan says, “is to remain calm. If the customer is not able to engage you in an argument, she'll eventually stop fighting. People can't be pissed off by themselves for long. Your calmness will diffuse her anger, and then the two of you can work together to solve the problem.”

Chapter 7 Take Home Points

  • Choose a Win/Win attitude. Other people don't care what you want—they want to know what's in it for them. By approaching negotiations with a Win/Win attitude, you'll be more effective at eliciting cooperation and, ultimately, getting what you want.
  • Compliment your coworkers. People hunger for recognition. Be generous with your compliments, but make sure they're sincere. The most effective compliments focus on specific actions or facts rather than vague generalities or assumptions.
  • Give coworkers your undivided attention. Being mentally present for another person means actually listening to what she is saying, focusing on her rather than everything else going on in the room, and ignoring potential interruptions, such as ringing phones or beeping Blackberries.
  • Lean to handle criticism with class. The most successful people in corporate business listen objectively, accept constructive criticism, and look for ways to grow from it. Those who respond to criticism by getting defensive hold themselves back personally and professionally.

They Don

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareer Advice: Career 101 for Recent Graduates, New Hires, and Would-be Corporate ClimbersPeople Management - Enlisting Cooperation, A Touch Of Sweetness, Creating Positive Relationships, Dealing With Difficult People