Handling difficult people at work

I came across an article by Deepak Chopra on handling difficult people and it set me thinking on how should we deal with difficult people at work. Am separating my suggestions into three categories – difficult boss, difficult subordinate, difficult peer.

Difficult boss (assuming you have been working for sometime with him/her, not a new relationship. If its a brand new boss, spend lots of time to build the relationship) –

1. Over communicate – find excuses to meet almost everyday and talk about something. Send emails about what went well in the day.
2. If the above tactic doesn’t work, setup formal 1:1 reviews and ask direct questions – “I seem to have irritated you somehow, what did I do and am sorry”.
3. You may be able to get an opening with the above question, use it, otherwise if you get a brush off answer, try asking for help with some of the challenges you face. “I have this issue with sales, how do I deal with it.” Usually bosses pick on that thread as it brings out the problem solver in them.
4. Maybe number 3 doesnt work as well, do some research about the person’s past and pick on something that he/she did outstandingly well and compliment them. It may help soften the person and then ask other questions that helps you build some relationship. Please make it a genuine compliment, fake compliments are disastrous – if you have to resort to fake compliments, don’t bother.
5. Find out what makes your boss successful, and do things that will help him/her look good.
6. None of the above works speak to HR. Ask for help…
7. You know this one, if all fails – Find another boss (read job).

Difficult Subordinate –

1. Over communicate – ask about career aspirations, share regular feedback, help the person understand that you want him/her to succeed.
2. A subordinate is usually difficult under five circumstances – he/she has support from someone senior, she/he is insecure, ego issues, no respect for you, his/her personal life is hellish.
3. If its support from someone senior understand from the senior the reasons for support … Then it’s a simple business decision of either keeping the person till something gets delivered or till we get a backp.
4. If its insecurity, try bolstering the person’s confidence by getting them to help others. In some cases, the insecurity may not allow the person to even offer help, in which case, quickly create backups.
5. If its ego issues there is not much you can do really … It’s about how long you want to tolerate or how long the person is useful.
6. If its no respect for you, please evaluate your own behaviour and interactions. It could be that you have not shown your skills or haven’t been helpful, or have sidelined this particular colleague. Rectify your behaviour right away if that’s the case. In some cases, it’s just you, but the subordinate’s bizarre standards that you can’t live upto.
7. Most difficult people have a hellish personal life … It’s tough to keep a grim face and never laugh and just be nasty to one and all – no one likes to do that. If the person shares about their personal struggles – it’s a victory already, and they may turn out to be the best employee from then – if they guard their miseries tightly, tough luck.
8. Involve HR as soon as you have a really difficult subordinate and please try formal, informal, documented and oral feedback while keeping HR in the loop. If you make some headway, well and good, if not having HR’s counsel helps in letting go of the person.
9. Before firing a difficult subordinate ask yourself if you have honestly given the person every opportunity to succeed.
10. Don’t wallow in your decision making – let go of a difficult subordinate quickly after ascertaining point 9.

Difficult peer –

1. Try open communication – it may backfire but no harm in trying.
2. Try and understand what they are trying to succeed at – and help.
3. Find things that they do well and appreciate
4. Do not speak badly behind his/her back. If you have feedback – give it to them directly, not to someone else.
5. If they are blocking your path, you may have to escalate and do so without putting down the peer.
6. If you are perceived as a threat, not much that you could do. Just be more mature in handling the situation 🙂 also wherever possible share the limelight.
7. Sometimes a friend turns into a foe …. The saddest “difficult peer” situation. You may never see it, so you just bear the consequences and find a graceful exit for yourself or the peer.
8. Find out the network of a difficult peer before doing anything drastic – the network may just drown you out.

In all the three scenarios – cut your losses and stop investing when you get no returns. Yes everyone can be turned around, but life allows you only so much time and the consequences of not breaking off can be disastrous for not just you, but many other people in the organization.

Unpleasant ? Yes. But can be made pleasant.

Please read Deepak Chopra’s article “how to handle difficult people”

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