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The People Challenge

Ask many managers what their greatest work challenge is, and they’d most likely say something along the lines of “managing difficult employees.” Business is always dealing with people and standards, so things can go wrong, such as dissatisfied clients and missed deadlines.

When something goes wrong, a manager typically responds by firing off an angry group email blaming whatever she sees as the general issue. Feeling attacked, employees often lash out in response through email or sometimes in person. What’s even worse is the passive-aggressive behavior and the behind-the-scenes complaining and gossiping that swirls around the entire office, even traveling home. The result is a dysfunctional workplace in which both management and employees believe they are dealing with difficult coworkers—and repeat problems go unresolved.

There are a few steps managers can take to help:

1. Start by looking in the mirror. In many cases, it is the managers as much as the employees who are contributing to a wide range of difficult situations. We all tend to play the blame game and let ourselves off the hook. Often we fail to recognize the experiences and processes and don’t give them the same credit we give ourselves. This makes both sides assume they are dealing with “difficult people.”

2. Take a fact-finding approach. When something goes wrong, give yourself time to calm down, and then meet with individual employees in private and ask them to give you their perspective on what happened. Tell them that your goal is to work together to fix it. Explain that you’re not interested in assigning blame or punishment but rather are looking toward the future. Listen without criticism.

3. Brainstorm solutions. Rather than taking a top-down approach to correcting problems that arise, engage your employees in helping to identify solutions. After all, they’re usually the ones who know the most about how procedures and processes actually unfold at work and are best able to see.

4. Encourage a learning environment. Foster an environment where employees can safely make mistakes. Give workers the freedom to take calculated risks without the fear that they will be punished if their vision doesn’t turn out as well as planned. They will likely be less difficult and give far more than you ever imagined.

5. Make sure you really listen. The thing with difficult people in difficult situations is that sometimes they just want someone to hear them out, sincerely. When we tune them out, it fuels the situation. Try to truly understand.

6. Don’t be afraid of disagreement. There are times when it’s okay to agree to disagree. If you stay silent, though, you can often give the impression that you agree, or don’t have a problem with what they are saying. Just stick to facts, don’t get emotional, and don’t throw around extreme words like “always” and “never.”

7. Move toward a solution with boundaries. No one should be in such a protected place (client or employee) that they get to provide constant stress. Boundaries need to be put into place that will prevent that from happening. Boundaries, "this far and no more,” allow you to move toward solutions much faster, which should be the overall goal.

Sometimes we want peace so badly that we never actually fix the problem. We either just get rid of what we think is the problem, or we “kiss and make up” and go on till next time. That only leads to larger issues eventually. The next time you’re in a difficult situation, make a conscious decision to take steps to an overall solution.

Most people have had the unpleasant experience of working with or for someone who doesn’t like them, or is just plain difficult to work with. Dealing with difficult people is one of the most stressful situations business owners and managers face. Although some conflict in the workplace is healthy, constant conflict can be extremely detrimental to everyone. Kenneth Haugk has written a very helpful book titled Leader Killers. First, you need to figure out if you are dealing with an antagonistic person.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the person’s behavior divisive?

  • Is the attack irrational?

  • Does he or she go out of the way to initiate trouble?

  • Are the concerns upon which he or she bases the attack minimal or fabricated?

  • Does the person avoid causes that involve personal risk, suffering or sacrifice?

  • Does the person’s motivation appear selfish?

  • Does the person try to catch you by asking questions that will trip you up in front of others?

  • Does the person gossip to get others on his or her side?

  • Is there relentless meddling, emailing, coming in to your office or texting to work through the issue they will not let drop?

While a difficult person certainly has the right to their opinion, they do not have the right to take over the organization. Don’t wait. The longer you wait, the more everyone will lose morale and productivity. Refuse to allow control-dramas and manipulative conversations. Stay calm. A manipulative person wants you to get upset. Refuse to be derailed. Address only the facts. Choose the time for discussion—you can say we’ll discuss this another time and not address it now. Stick to the facts. Don’t go it alone. Get other leaders involved.

Dealing with difficult people can take a toll on your life and business. But they don’t have to. You can do it well.

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