The 5 Best Strategies for Working with Difficult People
We all come across people in the workplace from time to time that we just wish we didn’t have to engage with. But unlike a nosy neighbour you can ignore, or an acquaintance you can cut ties with, we don’t have the flexibility to remove difficult co-workers from our daily lives.
Instead of spending time and energy venting about these people (or worse yet, trying to avoid them!) Learn these 5 strategies to help you work more successfully with the difficult people in your workplace.
1. Don’t take it personally; take it professionally.
Did you know that some people like to disagree? Not just with you; with everybody!
When disagreements happen in the workplace, there can be a knee-jerk reaction of people getting upset. Possibly even offended. If this is you, it may mean you’re someone who takes a great deal of pride and ownership over your work. And having our ideas or decisions questioned or shut down can be disheartening. But it’s important to remember that the people you work with aren’t your best friend. Deciding on the direction of a project isn’t the same as choosing which restaurant to eat at on a Friday night. At work there’s a lot more at stake and usually there are a lot more people involved, too. Personal feelings need to take a back seat over the standards for work that's being produced.
The aim of an argument, or a discussion, should not be victory but progress.
The next time you feel someone is being difficult -because they're disagreeable- ask them a few questions. Determine if they’re offering a solution that has more merit or if their idea will result in a better outcome. Or, if they’re simply disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing. Staying in the conversation will allow you to work through this line of questioning. And allow for a more productive conversation and improved end result. And remember the words of the late philosopher Karl Popper “The aim of an argument, or a discussion, should not be victory but progress.”
2. Recognize the 1-offs from a pattern. But beware the ticking time bomb!
Sometimes a co-worker is just having a bad day. (15 months of a pandemic anyone?) And we don’t always know what’s going on in their personal life. While it can be irritating to have someone snap at you without a valid reason, everyone you work with is only human! That goes for you too.
The next time you're stewing over a difficult co-worker, ask yourself this question: “Is this an ongoing issue with this person?” If you can think of at least 2 other examples where this coworker behaved poorly towards you, then you’ve established a pattern. At this point, you should take the time necessary to address the issue. (Read some excellent tips by Lolly Daskal on dealing with the elephant in the room.)
But what if you'd rather avoid the conflict? Well, have you ever been driving and flipped someone the bird for an inconsiderate move they made on the road? Ya, no… me neither! But if I did, it might be because it felt “safe” to do so. Meaning, the likelihood is I’ll never see that person again. At work we don’t have that same level of anonymity. Once you’ve established a pattern, make sure you don’t wait too long before doing something about it. Otherwise there’s a real possibility you will verbally and/or emotionally explode on that person one day. And when that happens more than twice, you’ve now become the ‘difficult person to work with’ yourself.
3. Acknowledge that not all conflict is bad.
Have you ever spent more time double checking your work before sending it to the team because of that 1 person who finds (and highlights!) all of your mistakes? These self-appointed hall monitors can be a real pain in the butt to work with sometimes. But if their actions raise the bar for the quality of work being produced, then isn’t that a good thing? Sometimes the push we need, isn’t always the push we want – but we are the better for it.
In his latest book Think Again, Adam Grant references the team that worked on Pixar’s The Incredibles movie. Under the direction of Brad Bird, a team was assembled of people who were "disagreeable, disgruntled and dissatisfied”. In only 4 short years they produced the academy award winning movie that no one said could be made with computer animation technology at the time. And they did it under budget!
Sometimes difficult people put us under pressure by challenging the status quo. This creates the opportunity for everyone around them to pull up their socks and show what they’re made of. The result is usually personal excellence and team success!
4. Treat them like they are your customer.
A mentor of the Human Dynamics Training team, Dr. Robert Rohm, suggests treating these people like your customer. If you've ever worked retail or in the hospitality industry, you immediately understand what he means. If you’ve never worked in a customer-facing role, try thinking of how you'd interact with an elderly person holding up the line at the grocery store.
The point of this exercise is to admit your capabilities. If you can hold your composure -and your tongue- when someone else is causing you stress (like in the situation above), then you can do it with the difficult people you work with, too! It doesn’t mean they won't drive you crazy. Nor does it mean you should avoid speaking with them about their behaviour or attitude. But it does mean that you have the skill to engage in a cordial manner. Where everyone can walk away with their professionalism and integrity intact.
5. Realize that it’s probably not them - it’s You!
Ouch – that one may sting, but we’ve all been there. Just because people don’t agree with you or support your choices at work, doesn’t mean they are out to get you. In fact, they may not even know you. Not really! If you grew up with siblings then you know what it feels like to have your buttons pressed. (Now those trouble-makers know you!) More often then not, people you work with aren’t intentionally trying to annoy you – because their actions aren’t about You.
The most difficult interactions we have to endure are usually ones that bring out the worst in ourselves. Maybe your boss’ way of delivering feedback reminds you of your 3rd grade teacher. The one who made you feel dumb and said you’d never amount to anything. Or your goody two-shoes coworker wreaks of your little cousin who used to get away with murder when the adults weren’t looking. Whatever the case, the reality is that the difficult people you work with aren’t actually trying to be difficult. They’re just being themselves. And your job is to be yourself. And realize that your level of annoyance may be heavily inflated by past experiences with other people. The majority of managing conflict with others is about cleaning up our own backyard.
At the end of the day, handling difficult people is about knowing what needs to be dealt with and changed. And knowing what can afford to go by the wayside, like last year’s fashion trends. But taking time to improve work relationships, not just suffer through them, is worth it for the emotional energy you’ll save yourself in the long run.