“Do you have someone at work who consistently triggers you? Doesn’t listen? Takes credit for work you’ve done? Wastes your time with trivial issues? Acts like a know-it-all? Can only talk about himself? Constantly criticises?”
Those were questions asked by President and CEO of The Energy Project Tony Schwartz in an article for Harvard Business Review where he looked at the secret to dealing with difficult people.
“Our core emotional need is to feel valued and valuable,” Tony wrote. “When we don’t, it’s deeply unsettling, a challenge to our sense of equilibrium, security, and well-being. At the most primal level, it can feel like a threat to our very survival.”
Unfortunately, there’s likely many people in the workforce that can relate. Take Mary, for instance.
A cautionary tale on the perils of ‘reply all’
Mary knew the pitfalls of accidentally hitting the “reply all” button on emails but when she responded to a memo from her boss about a change in company policy, she fully intended for everyone on the recipient list to see her response.
What she wasn’t prepared for was the wrath that came from her boss afterwards.
Mary, a mid-level manager in a big company, wanted further clarification on her boss’s wording. She thought she would be doing him and her colleagues a favour by clearing things up.
He didn’t see it the same way. He took her into his office and berated her for making him look stupid and accused her of being passive-aggressive.
“Looking back I can see how he felt a bit stupid,” Mary explains. “But his response was so over the top.”
Everyone can be difficult
Leadership expert and executive coach Loretta Brown says everyone in an organisation has the potential to display difficult behaviours at times.
“The key is to work out what is abrasive behaviour and what is full-blown bullying,” she says, adding that it’s helpful to label the behaviour as difficult rather than the person.Leadership expert and executive coach Loretta Brown says everyone in an organisation has the potential to display difficult behaviours at times.
Communicating clearly is also crucial. An important leadership attribute is to be able to see things from the other person’s point of view, says Loretta, a director at the New Zealand Coaching and Mentoring Centre.
A helpful “backdoor” into addressing the issue is to talk about perception, using phrases like “there is a perception that XYZ behaviour is taking place, how can we fix this perception?”
If respect is not being shown then the difficult behaviour enters into the bullying sphere and should be referred to someone skilled in addressing these issues, like an HR manager.
“If an employee has nowhere else to turn and feels like they are not being respected then they should look to escalate it,” says Loretta. “They should feel empowered to say that this is not an acceptable environment.”
But she says some forms of bullying can be hard to identify.
“Sometimes behaviour is almost bullying but not quite. It can be hard to nail it. Organisations are getting better at addressing it.”
Good behaviour starts from the top
Loretta says many difficult behaviours can be systemic and while there are some very skilled managers, some need to become better skilled at taking on challenging behaviours.
“Organisations move mountains around difficult people rather than tackling personal behaviours, doing ludicrous redesigns around difficult people,” says Loretta.
“Often difficult people are framed up as having interpersonal difficulties, when it’s actually the wider structure of an organisation. Some organisations normalise bad behaviours.
“Good behaviour starts from the top and bad behaviour can filter all the way down. There’s a huge responsibility on executive teams to create an affirming culture.
“It’s true what they say, people leave their managers rather than an organisation.”