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Difficult People

Problem Interactions in the Workplace

Interviewed on this topic by Janet Pfeiffer on Anger911 radio (1/14/15)


Problem interactions in the workplace is a subject I’m sure we have all encountered at one time or another. Who hasn't been intimidated by someone, had the displeasure of knowing a back-stabber, or encountered a know-it-all? But how do we deal with these individuals? 

This article will take a look at the many different “styles” that difficult people present in the work place along with some simple strategies on how to counter their behaviors. When I presented this to a group of hospital managers and directors a few years ago, I noticed heads nodding in agreement as I described how various individuals can negatively impact their peers and work environment. It appeared that it’s not too hard to notice who engages in certain behaviors that push the buttons of their coworkers. Before I begin, I would like to give credit to Muriel Solomon for her book Working with Difficult People in which I derived much of the information I will be conveying as well as other business resources I have studied and researched.

Dealing with Hostile and Angry People – Bullies and Intimidators

Bullies: are habitually cruel – threatening your present and future. They appear self-confident and try to punish you with their air of superiority. They try to push your “buttons’ in order to rile and upset you.

Strategy– Bullies lose their power if you do not cower. Hold your ground and maintain your professionalism in the workplace.

Intimidators: gain their power by implying that they can hurt and embarrass you. They may be threatened by you and feel a need to gain control over you.

Strategy – this is the time to be assertive. Try to have a talk with the intimidating individual to see if you can “clear the air” regarding the issue.

Dealing with Deceitful and Underhanded People– Hypocrites, Back-stabbers, and Underminers

Hypocrites: are two-faced double dealers who purposely misrepresent or mislead you.

Strategy – your goal is to get straight answers. Ask questions that require direct answers and put the hypocrit on the spot.

Back-stabbers: are phonies who will be nice to your face, but very critical of you behind your back.

Strategy – confront back-stabbers calmly and let them know that you heard they are the ones who made disparaging comments about you. This should stop them.

Underminers: undercut your efforts and set you up to fail.

Strategy – document all your interactions with the underminer as well as aspects of the work they are trying to discredit you with if you need to defend yourself in the future.

Dealing with Rude and Abrasive People– Interrupters and Instigators

Interrupters: rudely break into your discussion, burst into your office uninvited, or pester you while you are on the phone.

Strategy – you may need to interrupt the interrupter and tell them firmly you cannot speak to them now.

Instigators: are troublemakers who often feel bored, bitter, or restricted. They twist the truth and enjoy stirring up others so they will not have to act alone.

Strategy – try not to get caught up in their games and rely on the policies and procedures of your organization to neutralize their behaviors.

Dealing with Critical and Judgmental People – Complainers, Gossipers, and Withholders

Complainers: are chronic gripers who will grumble publicly or behind others backs about anything they find bothersome.

Strategy – if you find yourself in the path of a complainer, politely excuse yourself and let them know you have “urgent” work to attend to.

Gossipers: are “rumor mongers” who spread unverified facts and stories of questionable origin. They also will morph the truth in a way that they can control.

Startegy – you never know what part of a gossipers story is true. If you need to know what’s really going on, verify the information from a more reliable source.

Withholders: hold back telling you important information you may need in an attempt to feel more in control and powerful or as a way to sabotage your work.

Strategy – approach the withholder and let them know that you need all the information they have in order for you to do your work. If they continue to withhold information, you may need to speak to your supervisor about it.

Dealing with Egotistical and Self-Centered People– Know-it-alls and “My way or the highway”

Know-it-alls – are smart alecks with over inflated egos who arrogantly claim to know everything about everything

Strategy – It’s difficult to challenge a know-it-all because you’ll get a lot more “information” from them in an effort to prove themselves right. Just try to ignore them.

My way or the highway people – are inflexible, arrogant coworkers who say they always have done it “this way” and they always will. These folks refuse to change.

Strategy – your goal is to help move in the direction that is best for your organization. Present ideas for changes to the individuals who have the power to decide whether they are practical. Once implemented, move forward with them and never look back

Dealing with Procrastinators and Vacillators– Perfectionists and Dawdlers

Perfectionists – are consummate worriers and keep polishing their work which never quite meets their very high standards.

Strategy – your objective is to help perfectionist colleagues focus on the core goal of their project and to set a specific time frame for the work to get done disallowing too much time for “tweaking” the project.

Dawdlers – waste time while you wait for their work in order to complete your own. Their problem becomes your problem.

Strategy – unless you believe the dawdler is more of a saboteur, talk to them about how their work, or lack of it, affects your work. If it continues, you may need to go to your manager about this issue. 

Options for Working with Difficult People

Start out by examining yourself – explore what you are experiencing:

  • Is your mood affecting your judgment?
  • Are you overacting?
  • Did this person push your “hot” buttons?
  • Are you overly stressed?
  • Are you misinterpreting the situation?
  • Is this a chronic issue?

Approach the person with whom you are having the problem with for a private talk

  • Get some perspective from others
  • Be calm
  • Build a rapport
  • Use “I” messages
  • Be pleasant, agreeable, and respectful
  • Watch for body language and facial expressions
  • Be aware of tome of voice
  • Attempt to reach an agreement
  • Be prepared to leave the discussion without a resolution – to revisit at another time if necessary

Follow up after the initial discussion

  • Has the behavior changed?
  • Was a compromise worked out?
  • If not better or worse, decide if you want to continue to confront the difficult person
  • Go to management if the problem does not resolve

Working with difficult people can range from mild annoyances to the point where someone may be written up or discharged from their job. Most managers would like to see coworkers work out their problems on their own in a respectful and professional manner. However, sometimes disciplinary measures may have to be implemented by the manager to one or both of the employees who continue with behavioral issues while on the job. Problem interactions in the workplace can be disruptive, perpetuate other negative behaviors in others if it’s not stopped, and can negatively affect productivity in any work environment. We all must put on our "professional" hats when we enter the workplace and try to put aside any distractions around us. And we may, at times, need to be assertive with others to get their behavior to change. Hopefully, the information outlined in this newsletter can bring awareness to this issue and the strategies helpful in reducing or ameliorating some of the problems in the workplace.   

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