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9 Tips for Dealing with Difficult People in the Workplace

Posted by Mary Bradbury Jones on March 25, 2016

working with difficult peopleUnfortunately, living and working with difficult people is unavoidable. While they're a little easier to manage in our personal lives, at work, it can become a struggle to balance professionalism and quality work with putting up with distractions and setbacks. Today's post discusses nine best practices for working with difficult people so you can keep your sanity while accomplishing your goals and completing projects on time.

1. Stay Aware

Every workplace is supposed to be a relatively safe space, so it can be all too easy to forget this obvious first step—be aware of your surroundings, as well as how you interact with your team members and other coworkers. Are there people whose attitudes and habits are those you're better off avoiding? Are they passive aggressive or overly argumentative? Sometimes simply being aware of these kinds of attitudes are all you need to bypass them because you'll be mentally and professionally prepared to meet that need or problem head on with productive attitudes and answers.

An extension of this is also very important, i.e., be aware of yourself. This involves more than simply ensuring that you're respectful (which we'll address in a moment). Rather, it's a matter of understanding the words and behaviors that can trigger or exacerbate the problems at the heart of why working with difficult people seems impossible. All interactions and conversations go in two directions, so own your part of every situation and do your best to keep your team productive.

2. Stay Calm

It's undeniable that successful people keep a cool head under pressure, so it should be no surprise that staying calm is on the list of best practices for working with difficult people. Staying calm will allow you to take advantage of the other tips in our list, plus it will prevent difficult situations from escalating. You'll be able to approach the situation with an open mind and possibly even get to the heart of what the difficult coworkers in question are actually trying to achieve.

Remember, anger can be useful, but losing your temper never improves a situation.

3. Stay Respectful

This should go without saying, but it can be hard to remember in the heat of the moment. As we mentioned in our first tip, you need to own your part in the situation, and that means being aware of how you treat your coworkers. After all, treating them poorly will only validate their need to be defensive and problematic, allowing them to blame you for their behavior as well as the resulting effects on the team and current project.

Of course, this is especially true of difficult coworkers that are also positioned over you. If you're being assigned work that's outside the purview of your job description, being passed over for promotion, or even struggling against sexism, the respectfulness in your approach can make all the difference. At the very least, you'll have done everything you could to resolve the situation without ever sabotaging the attempt to resolve issues.

4. See Their Perspective

The outflow of the last two points feeds into the old adage—walk a mile in their shoes. Understanding a difficult coworker's point of view and treating them respectfully can help you determine not only what they're trying to accomplish socially through their behavior, but what they're trying to accomplish with their work, and what's actually at the core of their poor behavior. It may help you neutralize the poor behavior altogether, but at the very least, it will help you determine solutions to keep your productivity up and your workplace atmosphere smooth.

Remember, compassion is not a weakness as long as it's accomplished in a healthy, forward thinking manner.

5. Navigate Toward Solutions

Forward motion is incredibly important, and it's actually possible to use that for the purpose of deflating stressful situations. Keep the focus on how different parts of the project are progressing and find non-intrusive methods for the team to keep contact. It's possible that in helping the team as a whole resolve the frustration and stress of working through the project, the tangential stress of working with difficult people will also be resolved.

Furthermore, when issues are clear enough, it's also important that you and even your team find a way to mediate those problems. Especially if you're a team leader, allowing those issues to stand are only going to get worse, hurt productivity, and reflect poorly on you.

6. Navigate Away from the Problems

Unfortunately, sometimes resolution isn't going to be immediately possible, and in worst case scenarios, resolutions are less than optimal. For whatever reason, the problematic person's behavior isn't going to change and it's starting to hurt your job performance. Maybe it's getting harder and harder to be civil, or maybe the level of interruption means that you're no longer capable of staying on task. It's time to step away, whether that means exiting from a conversation, using another office, or something else altogether. In some workplaces that's easier than in others, so it's possible that you'll need to talk to a manager or HR to hash out alternating schedules or similar.

Remember, removing yourself from a particular situation isn't rude. Sometimes finding someplace else to do your work is what you need to do in order to maintain civility and stay productive, plus it gives you space to approach the situation fresh.

7. Document Everything

No matter what level you are within management or even just within your team, it's important for you as well as the business to keep problems documented. Hopefully the company has a process in place, because problem mediation is as much a matter of quality assurance as ensuring documents are formatted to the right template and manufacturing sites operate within certain guidelines. Team expectations should be clear and documented, so everyone knows what their roles are.

When interacting directly with a problematic person, it's also useful to keep records for the purpose of taking business action if necessary. Whether it's a coworker, a subordinate, or a boss, saving emails, sending clarification emails to nail down expectations, and similar can be important to ensure that there's something to reflect the truth of a situation beyond a "he said, she said" argument. If it's a boss, this can help ensure that you stay on the same page for a project, even when they change their mind about how it should be completed. If it's a coworker, this can also help ensure that supervisors see the work that you're doing — you don't want your difficult coworker to speak for you or your work in meetings and more.

Remember, protecting yourself and your job isn't selfish, it's smart.

8. Give Them a Space

Believe it or not, sometimes when you're working with difficult people, what they really need is an outlet to share their concerns and ideas. This doesn't excuse their poor behavior, to be sure, but by giving them a time and a place focused to their needs—whether it's during a team meeting or a one-on-one meeting—it may ameliorate the problematic behavior and result in overall constructive discourse.

9. Bring in Authority

In the end, sometimes it is entirely unavoidable that outside help is going to be necessary. When you've followed the rest of our tips, seeking assistance from someone higher in the chain or from HR shouldn't be risky, nor should you feel embarrassed by the need to do so. Seeking the mediation and advice of a superior is the responsible thing to do.

Typically, this involves a team member bringing in a supervisor, but in some cases, managers need to do this with the employees they supervise. They hold back bringing in their own manager in a vain attempt to protect a potentially valuable member from getting into trouble or from seeming like they're an incapable manager. However, undue delay seeking help from a superior can end up perpetuating poor behavior and end up reflecting more poorly on you.

Now that you understand some of the best practices for working with difficult people, you should find that getting through the workday while working with difficult people will start to get easier. Always remember—be respectful, ensure you're following company policy, and don't be afraid of bringing authority in to ultimately solve the problem.

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