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How to Work With Difficult People
By Eileen O. Brownell   Printer Friendly Version

"Without difficulties, life would be like a stream without rocks and curves - about as interesting as concrete."
-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 their behavior.

  • 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 pregnant pause.

  • 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.

Copyright © 1999 Eileen O. Brownell. All Rights Reserved.

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