How To Deal With Difficult People In The Workplace
Starla Sireno Forbes Councils Member
Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to avoid working with at least some difficult (if not some extremely difficult) people. You might find them in senior leadership, among your peers or even among your clients. They can have an impact on your motivation, stress, absenteeism and morale. In extreme cases, they might even have a financial impact if your business must incur cascading management, legal and human resources costs.
Perhaps your difficult person does not cause you complete agony, but the effects of having to manage a relationship with these types of co-workers can take a significant toll on your productivity, focus and emotional well-being. While we will never be able to completely avoid difficult people, I've developed five strategies as a coach to help you deal with them gracefully:
1. Examine yourself first.
This is generally the most difficult (but also most important) step of any problem: Check yourself, and ask how you might be contributing to the issue at hand. For example, is the problem the other person’s actions, or your reaction? Ask yourself truthfully, are you overreacting in any way? Do you see any patterns or typical hot buttons for yourself? It can often be a challenge to look at your place in any conflict objectively, so ask a third party, such as an unbiased co-worker, for feedback to really understand the reality of the situation without the coloring of ego and emotion.
2. Learn empathy.
Instead of being defensive, see the difficult person as a person. Try to understand where he or she is coming from. What does that person need that he or she isn’t getting? Perhaps it’s to be seen, heard, acknowledged or recognized. Many of us have likely been there before; we might have even been the difficult person on the other side. Instead of ruminating on how you can get back at them, ask yourself how you can help them. Even if you still believe they’re in the wrong, how can you create a win-win situation now that you have an understanding of where they’re coming from?
3. Don’t take it personally.
It's important to remind yourself that you likely aren't the cause of someone else's demeanor. Recently, I was working with a client who was newly promoted and assigned a new team. She planned a team-building session but was nervous to facilitate the day because she was worried about how to keep everyone engaged and open. Shortly after the day started, one of the team members seemed oblivious to the conversation and was tethered to her phone.
My client was furious. Not only did it feel disrespectful, but it also triggered her own insecurities about facilitating the group. But, at the morning break, my client asked (rather than accused) the team member if something was wrong. The woman explained that she was dealing with a serious family issue, and after their conversation, both agreed that this team member should leave to be with her family.
4. Become proactive.
What happens when someone takes credit for your work or yells at you? You likely become angry or upset. The problem is, most of us can end up spending valuable mental, emotional and physical energy stuck this way. It’s totally draining and only ends up hurting you in the long run.
So how can you take a more proactive approach? Focus on what you want. Be clear about your own career objectives, know what you want to accomplish in the next one or two years, and recognize the roles those around you play. The more you focus your actions and attention on what you want to accomplish, the more the difficult people gently fade into white noise in the background.
5. Find the solution.
Finally, when things get tough, fight the urge to flee. Instead, challenge yourself to be constructive and solutions-oriented. It might not be easy, but if you approach the problem with curiosity, ask open-ended questions, and truly listen with an open mind and without judgment — you might find the answer was simpler than you expected. State your objectives, acknowledge their position, ask for their suggestions, and never lose sight of your wider perspective.
Sometimes, we are able to choose the people with whom we work, but more often than not, those decisions are made for us. And while we can't always change the cards we’re dealt, we can take responsibility for how we engage with others. Ask yourself what each person can teach you — especially those you struggle with the most. Stepping up and choosing to approach challenging people with compassion and understanding, rather than frustration and resentment, can only make you a better leader and teammate at the end of the day.