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Best Practices: Difficult People
Working Effectively with Prickly Bosses, Coworkers, and Clients
How Difficult People Affect the Workplace
From line supervisors to senior managers, today's leaders are in the business of developing their people, which means helping them develop strong and productive relationships. Your challenge as a manager is to form coalitions of willing, eager, and ambitious people within your realm of responsibility.
Getting in your way, when you least expect or have the time to deal with them, will be difficult people.
If you observe enough managers over time, you'll notice that some are far less annoyed than others by these problematic employees. That's not because frazzled managers have a greater number of difficult people on their staff or that their difficult people are so much more challenging. Rather, serene managers have developed better skills for dealing with difficult people.
Every difficult person that you come into contact with is an opportunity for you to grow and develop into a stronger, more resilient—and more serene—manager. Fortunately, the coping skills you need can be learned.
The Cost of Difficult People
The exact cost of difficult people in the workplace is incalculable. Examining the subject is like trying to watch a skyscraper being built by peering through a knothole in a plywood construction fence. You are only able to see a portion of the complete picture at any given time.
The problem is not only that difficult people make everyone miserable, but also that they diminish your effectiveness and the effectiveness of thosearound you. Your effectiveness is a measure of how you get things done on time, under budget, with quality workmanship, and without overturning any apple carts, so that you get positive performance reviews, promotions, and raises.
Difficult People Undermine Your Authority
If you have institutional authority as a supervisor, manager, director, or higher executive, there is probably a difficult person over whom you have some control. A difficult person can undermine your popular authority—that is, the leadership role you've earned among the people you work with through your consistent and trustworthy behavior. A difficult person can complain about you when you're not present, compete with you for power, impede your ability to follow through on promises, and so on. If the difficult person misrepresents what you have done or how effectively you do things in general, it will become that much harder for you to build people's faith and trust in you—the very foundations of your popular authority.
Difficult People Waste Your Time
Chances are you never seem to have enough time to do everything your job requires. Difficult people can make it even harder. Some require your attention and focus. Some cause problems among peers that require your time to mediate. Some are unable to do their jobs, forcing you to deal with getting the job done.
Difficult People Bring You Down
A difficult person can indirectly affect the overall success of a whole department or company. When there is dissention in your ranks or among your peers, the losses in energy, enthusiasm, and productivity diminish results in ways that are difficult to quantify. Team efficiency suffers if you and your subordinates simply avoid the person causing the problems. Information gets lost when people don't communicate. The weak spots in your departmental efforts will create points of dysfunction and disconnect with customers and other departments. As problems mount, your reputation as an effective leader and team player will suffer, and your whole department will feel the consequences. The mud slide of problems sucks the vitality out of your workplace and saps the energy that you and your best people owe to your jobs.
Difficult People Affect You at All Levels
The effects of difficult people vary depending on whether they are coworkers, subordinates, or your boss.
Difficult subordinates affect your ability to get your job done. Doing their work as well as your own doesn't solve the problem; it simply drains energy and focus away from your own job. Difficult coworkers can withhold cooperation and support and can undermine your popular authority. Whether or not you're considered a team player is determined largely by the quality of your interaction with others. Difficult lateral relationships can be costly in hidden ways.
If your boss is difficult and you handle the situation clumsily, you could wind up being labeled difficult yourself—a label that you might not shake for the rest of your career.
Stay or Go?
In reaction to difficult people, some workers leave—only to find a new batch of difficult people in their new position. Whether you stay or go, you need to learn how to cope. The truth is that difficult people are everywhere.
Many people prefer to stay and work with someone who might drive them bananas but is at least predictable. There is much to be said for knowing what to expect from someone, even if it's unpleasant. Yet a manager who is truly driven by the desire to create a better organization—one that is a good workplace for its employees and a valuable provider of goods and services for its customers—will try to address the problems difficult people introduce in the workplace.
Why are Difficult People so Difficult?
As a general rule, the problems you encounter in dealing with a difficult person stem from one of two sources: conflicting expectations or unclear boundaries.
Although personality conflicts, political differences, or something as simple as disagreement over how high the office thermostat gets set can cause friction, the underlying difficulty is often misaligned expectations. For example, John is not meeting Mary's expectations and he is angry about it. Never mind that the two of them have never discussed their mutual expectations to begin with!
When you expect something from someone else—increased sales, stepped-up performance, higher productivity, or more help with your workload—you set yourself up for the possibility of disappointment. Offices are full of subordinates, coworkers, and superiors walking around resenting each other over expectations they never discussed, negotiated, or agreed to. Subordinates, peers, and superiors become "diffi cult" when they stand between you and your expectations.Best Practices: Difficult People
Working Effectively with Prickly Bosses, Coworkers, and Clients. Copyright © by John Hoover. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.