Tackle those Problem People

What's going on at work? Are people really more difficult or are we all getting too sensitive? And what can you do to help yourself handle the problem people you come into contact with at work?

By Roy Lilley
Richard Grace, Joint Managing Director of recruitment company Gordon Yates, says: “I’m not sure that people are more difficult these days. Over my twenty-five years in the recruitment business I’ve seen standards improve beyond recognition in the areas of racial, sex and general moronic discrimination. There are more laws dictating standards of behaviour in the workplace, and greater awareness of issues such as bullying and harassment. If people are more difficult, perhaps it’s the insecurity of the workplace, or even the hell of public transport – that should take some of the blame!”

Know what ‘difficult’ really is.
“It’s important to identify someone who is difficult, and someone who is under pressure. It depends on what’s meant by 'difficult' behaviour,” says Richard. “For example, a boss who’s too focused on his own job to have time for pleasantries with a temp may be a chore – and therefore difficult - but a professional PA should be able to cope with it. At the extreme end of the scale, if a boss is foul mouthed, abusive or even into sexual harassment, I wouldn't describe this kind of behaviour as 'difficult' it’s unacceptable.”

What should you do if your new boss, work colleague or client is difficult?
Take a step back. Are you giving yourself enough time to settle in and adjust to your new role and company? What new strategies could you use to deal with the situation? Could you sit down with one of the team, or your new boss, to ask for feedback on how things are going? If you’re temping and an assignment is making you really unhappy, call your agency. If they care about you, they will help.

Stuck with them?
If you’re working for a difficult person permanently, find out what matters most to your boss, and what’s most likely to annoy them. Sit down with them and ask for clear instructions on what’s expected from you. And watch the way he or she works. Do they have a preferred approach? Are they task oriented or people oriented?

If your abilities are being questioned, try to get more involved in your organisation in your own right. Let others know how good you are by letting them experience your effectiveness first hand. This will help boost your own self-belief. If things get worse, go to your HR department with specific examples of the behaviour you deem difficult. If anyone else was in close proximity at the time, note it. Be specific about the effect the behaviour is having on you and ask for help and support.

You just know….the person approaching you is going to be difficult.
“If you think someone’s going to give you a tough time, study their body language,” advises Marianne Watts, marketing manager at Guildford Business College, which runs courses to help people deal with difficult situations, customers and colleagues in the workplace. “They may not look you straight in the eye; they may cross their arms firmly across their chest, and have a sour expression. Their tone and language may be aggressive, loud, threatening.”

To handle them, try these simple steps:

  1. Take a deep breath
  2. Take a step back from the situation
  3. Try to put yourself in their shoes. We donâ??t know the half of what pressures someone else is under: Imagine your boss had spent half the night looking after his sick son; heâ??d had a row with his partner that morning and the tube was delayed. Arriving at work, he found that his boss had sent him emails about a project he wants an update on at 10am plus there were overnight emails from Australia to be answered urgently. Now heâ??s come to you for the information he needs immediately. What sort of state is he going to be in?
  4. Donâ??t take things personally.
  5. Remain cool, calm and collected.
  6. If it helps, think of something else, but give the person space to rant.
  7. Show youâ??re listening.

Remember, we’re all human
“Difficult people are human too; no one is perfect, so put yourself in the position of a difficult person: they could be working to a tight deadline or juggling any number of problems at once. Don’t tell them to calm down; it won’t help. Give them the space they need to rant and rage. Give every indication that you’re listening. Try to give them a number of options to choose from which will help them out – that means the power is transferred back to them,” says Marianne.

Listening skills and communicating effectively are key
“I learnt a lot about handling people and difficult situations when my partner and I went to Spain,” says Jan, a PA in Edinburgh. “We weren’t happy with our hotel, so I called our tour operator for help. The person I spoke to listened without interrupting me and asked questions to check that her understanding of our situation was accurate. She showed she was listening by saying “I see”, and “I understand”. She took my call seriously and remained calm and cool throughout. She quickly arranged another hotel for us and a taxi to take us there. The tour operator rose in our estimation because of the way she handled the complaint and I learnt a lot from reflecting on the way she dealt with everything. Listening skills and delivering what she promised were key.”

Don’t spend hours fretting over the way you handled someone
After your difficult person has gone, what do you do? You could make some tea, confide in a colleague, or do some calming breathing exercises. Most importantly, put the incident firmly to the back of your mind, learn from the way you handled it and move forward. Let others who are in a better mood lighten your day. Finally, look back on the experiences you’ve had dealing with difficult people and consider how much you’ve learned from them.

Further information

Guildford Business College runs courses on Dealing with Difficult People and Situations. Visit their web site at www.business-courses.co.uk or call the College on 01483 572 855 for more information.

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