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Blog Insight & Commentary

How Successful People Deal With Difficult People

Don't sink to their level. Rise above.

Stephanie Olsen
Contributor

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By Stephanie Olsen

Difficult people in the workplace don’t just make your life miserable. They hurt the company too, causing poor morale, absenteeism, and turnover. And because no one wants to work with difficult coworkers, projects fail and productivity falters, negatively impacting the bottom line.

Worse, difficult colleagues can cause physical harm in some situations. Pharmacy executive Vinay Patel points out that toxic coworkers “create barriers to open two-way communication which impedes maintaining efficient workflows.” This in turn puts safe and effective patient care at risk.

It’s imperative that unprofessional employees are dealt with before the fallout becomes irreversible. Successful people have strategies for handling difficult people. These can be used by managers and subordinates, so it doesn’t matter if the difficult person is a boss, peer or employee. You’ll still be able to handle the issue with poise and respect.

Bad behavior at the office

There are many types of behavior that can make people difficult to deal with. Some are simply annoying: a coworker has an irritating habit, like constantly clearing their throat or humming tunelessly as they work. You may want to pull your hair out, but these unconscious behaviors don’t usually have negative intent behind them and won’t affect the company as a whole.

People who are mulishly stubborn or hypercritical, on the other hand, can become toxic very quickly, creating a hostile work environment. Same with coworkers (or managers) who don’t pull their weight or who take credit for their colleagues’ work and ideas. We’ve all probably experienced the office bully or gossip. In all cases, these disrespectful behaviors do impact everyone around them as well as the company morale and productivity, and need to be addressed.

It’s important to know that difficult people are usually oblivious to the effect they have on others. “Most of the time people don’t realize that they’re as destructive as they are,” says Georgetown University professor Christine Porath, author of “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace.” “They’re too focused on their own behaviors and needs to be aware of the broader impact.”

This lack of self-awareness points to a low emotional intelligence, not to toxic intent. And although they may not seem as though they care what others think of them, most people want to be liked. 

Still, even if they’re not being passive-aggressive or petulant on purpose, they are controlling the work environment they’re in. Colleagues and managers go out of their way to avoid dealing with difficult people, so the complainers and opinionated staff get away with doing less work or with handing in sub-par results. It’s necessary then to take back control. You can’t force the lazy colleague or office bully to work harder or be nicer; however, you can control your reactions to those behaviors.

Steps you can take to change the behavior of a difficult coworker

Before taking action, take a moment to realize the label you’ve tagged a difficult person with has created a bias. Every interaction you have with that person will be informed by that bias. In his TEDx Talk, consultant Jay Johnson gives an example of this. A coworker you call stubborn comes across differently than a friend who has the same behavior but whom you describe as passionate or dedicated.

You don’t have to act on this, but you should be aware of it so you can separate the person from the behavior. A bad first impression may have colored your entire perception of that so-called “difficult” coworker.

Step away and choose when to engage

Psychologist Travis Bradberry, coauthor of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, lays out the steps successful people take to deal with difficult behavior. These include:

  • Physically limit the amount of time you spend with chronic gossips, complainers, and nitpickers. It seems obvious, but the less air you give them, the less negativity they can spread.

  • In the same way, distance yourself emotionally. You won’t gain anything by engaging in irrational behavior, so disengage. Respond only to facts, not feelings.

Disengaging isn’t quite the same as choosing your battles, another proven step in dealing with difficult people. The latter is when you decide if something is important enough to argue for.

As career strategist Linda Raynier puts it: “Avoid petty conflicts, but engage in professional conflicts.” If for example certain employee behaviors are making workplace processes inefficient, it’s important that you present an evidence-based solution, whether you’re speaking to senior management or coworkers. This way, you don’t come off as just another complainer, but rather as someone who can solve a problem that’s costing the company time and money.

Communicate to influence behavior

It may sound simplistic to say “talk out your differences”, but often real communication is vital to resolving a difficult working relationship. It’s how you approach the conversation that can make all the difference: that includes the language you use and knowing how to actively listen.

Cognitive psychologist and organizational development consultant Laree Kiely is a big believer in co-creating solutions, so everybody wins. “At the root of almost all conflict is who gets to tell who what to do,” she explains. In order to sidestep that problem, you have to find common ground on which both parties can agree. Then you can move into the problem you want to solve, posing it as a concern, not a disagreement. The last step is to create a dialogue by asking the other person’s advice: “What do you think we could do about that?”

When you use inclusive language to influence behavior, you make a contract between you and the other person.

Breathe and break

And don’t forget to take care of yourself. Develop and use healthy coping skills you can call into play when things get tough. Psychotherapist Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do, says to do whatever works to keep yourself mentally strong, including practices like gratitude and mediation.

If you’re rolling your eyes, consider this. Studies show that you can lower your blood pressure significantly in 30 seconds by taking six deep breaths. As your body calms, your stress level and instinctive fight/flight response decreases too. Don’t be afraid to take an actual time out if you’re in the middle of a heated confrontation. Suggest a break and then reconvene when you’re both calmer so you can work toward a resolution.

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