life would be like a stream without rocks and curves - about as interesting
-Benjamin Hoff: The Te of Piglet
We can't avoid them. Difficult
people are everywhere. They stand next to you in line or yell at you on the
phone. They will undercut your suggestions in a staff meeting or they never
have a nice thing to say about a project, person or one of your ideas. Negative
behavior can spread through a work environment like a bad cold after a blizzard.
It can be costly to an organization in morale or in the loss of customers.
According to Dr. Lyle Sussman,
management professor at the University of Louisville, troublesome employees
are by no means rare. In fact, medical researchers tell us one out of five people
should be receiving treatment for behavior disorders. Difficult people come
in all shapes and sizes. They can be your boss, co-worker, subordinate or a
customer. Negative employees cost organizations money. People lose time on the
job due to frustration, the need to vent, extra stress or even illness caused
by negative interactions with difficult people. The difficult person also loses
customers for organizations because of their negative attitude and lack of people
skills. For example, if your company lost a customer who normally spends an
average of $25 a week with your organization, your company would lose $1300
annually. If you lost a $1300 customer every day of the year, that would mean
a devastating loss of over $450,000 annually. Depending on the size of your
organization, that loss could make or break you.
To understand an individual's
behavior, we must first know what motivates them. No two individuals have exactly
the same motivation. People are either motivated by their needs or values. A
needs motivation includes love, growth, security and physical needs. A values
motivation is the beliefs and principles we have developed over our lifetime.
In addition to motivation, self-esteem and attitude can also affect a person's
outlook. Your challenge is to identify, understand and work with a difficult
person effectively. Though you cannot change an individual, you can control
your own reaction to that person and understand what causes their behavior.
Let's take a look at different types of difficult people and how to deal with
- Suzie Silent usually
responds with one-word answers (yes, no, maybe) and is very tight-lipped.
Typically they do not participate in conversations and will not reveal why
they are quiet even when asked. These individuals tend to be shy and afraid.
To work effectively with them, ask open-ended questions. Show appreciation
for their positive work and praise the behavior you want to reinforce. Also
allow enough time in conversations for them to respond, do not interrupt the
- Nate Negative is the
chronic pessimist. He always sees a problem without a solution. Because of
his low self-opinion he feels powerless in most situations. He creates power
by making a mountain out of a molehill. His negativity can pull the morale
down within an organization at a very rapid rate. To work effectively with
him, present the negative aspects before he does and then provide positive
alternatives. Be optimistic. Do not be drawn into his negative opinions or
argue and debate with the individual. Whenever possible, give Negative Nate
time to think through your discussion. It is important for him to save face
and time to re-evaluate a discussion often lets him bow out of negative position.
- Annie Agreeable can be
overly flexible in her effort to be liked and get what she wants. She can
be personable, over committed and a soothing delayer. Annie is frequently
an extrovert who will avoid disagreements at all costs. To work effectively
with her, be non-threatening. Ask for her opinion and solutions, which will
help her, analyze a situation. Be aware of her over-commitments and help her
monitor and manage her schedule. Make it non-threatening for her to be honest
about her opinions and feelings. Hold her accountable for her commitments
and part of any project.
- Freddie Fault-Finder
tends to complain about others and whine constantly. He seldom takes responsibility
for his actions and will place blame for his failures on the shoulders of
other people. He feels helpless to fix any problems and is a perfectionist
at heart. Freddie is not only critical of you and others, he also very self-critical.
To work effectively with him, listen carefully at first, as difficult as it
may be. Interrupt and ask for clarification and specifics, not generalizations.
Guide the conversation toward resolution of the problems with specific alternatives
and solutions. Acknowledge his feelings.
- Sarah Snake is sweet
to your face as she nips at your back. She can be manipulative as she smiles
at you. Sarah will deny that she is playing games as she lines up another
attack that seems to come out of nowhere at the next staff meeting. She tends
to have a rigid set of standards she believes everyone should conform to.
That is why she bites when things are not going her way. To work effectively
with her, confront the individual. It is best if this can be done by a group
of people she affects with her behavior. Reinforcement by several people that
the behavior is unacceptable will help get the message through. Provide alternatives
for her behavior. If possible, establish regular problem-solving meetings
to allow the issues to surface in a healthy manner.
- Eddie Expert feels superior
and tends to be condescending. He can be narrow minded and stubborn. He tends
to mistrust the ideas of others and will find a scapegoat if his ideas fail.
He needs admiration and ego stroking. If he does not have the answer, he will
make it up. To work effectively with Eddie, listen to his opinion and respect
it. Be sure however, to respect your own opinion as well. Whenever possible
give him credit in front of others. Prepare for all meetings and discussions
with Eddie. If need be, provide him with a way out if it becomes apparent
he is not the expert he conveyed.
- Sally Space Cadet is
always oblivious to the task at hand. She is in constant crisis. The car broke
down, the babysitter did not show or the computer crashed. Sally is focused
on everything but the task at hand and is easily distracted by the crisis
of the hour. To work effectively with Sally, sit down and explain why the
project, task, etc. is so important to the company. Dramatize a bit to add
urgency to your own needs or crisis. Outline the necessary step for completion
of the project. Obtain her buy-in to the project and then monitor her progress
with lots of praise and recognition.
- Harry Hostile is an aggressive
bully. He is quick to anger, loves to intimidate others and throws tantrums
when he does not get his own way. He believes he is right all of the time
and will go to great lengths to prove his superiority. To work effectively
with Harry, stay calm during his outbursts and above all, stand up for yourself.
Maintain good eye contact since his tirade will eventually run down. Prepare
ahead of time with effective comebacks, which you have rehearsed and clearly
state you will not be his scapegoat or the brunt of his tantrum. Be friendly
(every bully wants someone to accept them) and do not argue with him since
that is part of his game.
According to Dr. Robert
M. Bramson, author of Coping with Difficult People those whom you experience
as Difficult People will undoubtedly bring out the worst in you. They push your
emotional buttons, threaten you, cause you distress, and generally propel you
emotionally out of control. In so doing, they elicit from you whatever strategies
you have learned to use when confronted by threat and conflict. Yes, the difficult
person, whether he is a customer or she is a co-worker, can be a challenge.
You can, however, be prepared for the challenging blows to your motivation and
feelings of self-worth made by the difficult person. Take the time to know the
characteristics and behavior of the different types of difficult people. Understand
what their specific needs are. Prepare ahead of time as to how you will respond
to each person's needs and behaviors. Practice your responses to their behavior
until you are comfortable. Then you will be ready to work with the difficult
people in your life.
For permission to print
How to Work with Difficult People in your company newsletter or professional
journal contact Eileen.
© 1999 Eileen O. Brownell. All Rights Reserved.