You arrive at work, ready to go for a productive day. But your cheery “Good Morning” is met with a withering glance from your cubicle mate. Or maybe you’re in a meeting, and one of your co-workers – someone you trusted – presents one of your ideas as his own.
These are just a few of the scenarios that can occur when you work with “difficult” people. Whether it’s the person who spends the whole day complaining about their workload (instead of working on it) or the person who throws a temper tantrum whenever the photocopier isn’t available, you will encounter difficult people at work. Your success depends on your ability to deal with these people – and avoiding becoming “persona non grata” around the water cooler yourself.
Many “difficult” people act that way because they feel threatened or frustrated. The frustration builds, until it finally explodes on an unsuspecting target. The person who steals your great idea may be feeling pressure to perform, or insecure about his abilities, and using your work may be the way to get in the boss’ good graces.
The key to dealing with difficult people at work is understanding basic human nature, according to Andrea Sutcliffe, author of First-Job Survival Guide (Owl Books). “Sometimes you have to look beyond the surface to understand people and their actions,” she says. Are they having trouble at home or not feeling well? Did they just get reamed out by a manager for a small mistake? These factors, and many others, could contribute to a negative attitude that directs itself to the closest target – which just may be you, standing there wanting a signature on a requisition form.
Whatever the reasons for the behavior, the most important thing to remember when dealing with difficult people is to remain professional. Do not engage in verbal sparring or roll your eyes whenever your nemesis speaks. Eve Luppert, author of The Rules of the Road: Surviving Your First Job Out of School (Perigree), suggests that you kill them with kindness and a consistently upbeat attitude. It’s really hard to hate someone who smiles all the time and never has anything bad to say. Follow the golden rule: treat others how you would like to be treated. That means no lying, gossiping, backstabbing, or excessive complaining.
If a situation escalates to where you don’t even want get out of bed, do something. Sutcliffe recommends that the best option is to have a face-to-face discussion – do not address the problem with an e-mail or memo. Present your case in a non-accusing, non-confrontational manner. Outline what you think is the problem and ask for the other person’s point of view. Listen to what they say. You may get angry and want to deny everything, but hear them out.
Finally, offer a solution. Even if the problem is not your fault, come up with ideas about how you can work together productively. Don’t let the meeting turn ugly. If it does, leave the room before you say anything you’ll regret, and bring in a third party mediator, like a boss or a manager.
If there is a serious problem with a co-worker that is interfering with your productivity, it is important to bring in a supervisor and to document the situation. Keep your own notes, with dates and details, to present should the situation escalate. As a last resort, consider finding a new job if things do not improve.
It is important to remember that at work, like in life, you won’t like everyone, and everyone won’t like you. It’s just a fact of life. Once you learn to accept this, you can focus your energy on finding a way to maintain good working relationships with difficult people.
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