4 Distinct Ways to Look at Difficult People You Work With From a New Perspective

difficult people

Summary: How do you deal with people who drive you nuts at work? Do you complain to HR or ignore them? I agree that Work is NOT a Rehab Facility. There are better ways to keep your staff positive besides just firing those with whom you don’t get along.

How leaders handle conflict is a big test of their skills

I was presenting at a meeting of top executives, and the concept of conflict at work came up repeatedly.

Here are some of the persistent questions:

  1. Why is conflict and upset with “difficult” people universal in workplaces?
  2. Why does conflict seem to arise almost immediately? For instance, the “I don’t like him/her/them” shows up immediately. Even before colleagues have a chance to get to know each other?
  3. What is the reason that conflict worsens rather than just burns itself out to be forgotten?
  4. How can we help the “difficult” people who activate the tension? Should we fire them immediately?
  5. Who is mapping “the nastiness gene”? (no one laughed, they all sighed).

The anger expressed about “the jerks at work” was overwhelming. Therefore, I just gave room to let the folks express, to let out the sound and the fury.

Who is to blame for the conflict at the office?

Finally, the venting ended.

The dialogue continued going back and forth until someone stood up and said the following:

“There has to be a better way to deal with difficult people. Simply pointing fingers at them, and sadly, using those fingers to point them right out the door isn’t really working.”

It got hushed. Then someone applauded. Others followed.

Finally, someone said, “Okay, let’s find new ways to thinking about the jerks, the braggarts, the devious ones.”

Thereafter we made great progress. There was a shift to talk about”difficult situations” instead of “difficult people.

What’s the difference between “difficut people” and “difficult situations”?

Just that one shift in language changed minds from the old way of judging, blaming, and attacking others.

Firstly, these senior executives agreed they wasted time lurching from upset to upset. Or they wasted time sending “the jerks” for a slap on the wrist to Human Resources. Now, there was the willingness to look at the whole system.

Secondly, they all squirmed in their seats. That is, while they looked at their own part in creating difficult situations.

Use systems thinking for positive change when conflict shows up at work

Here is a strategy the group agreed would be helpful:

  1. Systems thinking offers a path of real change by thinking inclusively.
  2. Each individual is part of the system and must be accountable for what happens.
  3. Patterns of behavior become the focus instead of simply blaming one or more individuals.
  4. It is vital to look at how gossip, favoritism, scapegoating, and one-up-man-ship play out at work.
  5. The new theme becomes we are all connected, and no one wins unless we all do.

The human reaction to conflict is to protect for safety and survival

When you start to think in a whole system manner, here is what becomes clear:

  1. There is a natural tendency to bring ingrained behavior patterns from childhood with us to work.
  2. Because we became comfortable with the roles we played as children, we come into new situations at work with expectations about how they/we will behave according to plan.
  3. Unless we look “upriver” to find the core of why there is so much conflict, we will keep repeating and end with the “I told you so” refrain.
  4. Targeting the “difficult” person is easier than looking at making core changes.
  5. Everyone learns and grows when they can look at all aspects of the situation.

Ground rules for a healthy, collaborative work environment

Here are the ground rules for developing a healthy, systems connected work setting:

  1. Treat truth-telling as a precise art form: This does not mean you say everything you are thinking.
  2. Can what you plan to say make a positive difference
  3. Be accountable for your actions and reactions when conflict happens: do you avoid or indulge?
  4. Listen for emotion and repetition, that is key words or phrases that tend to repeat when there is upset.
  5. Be open to outcome, not attached to it: be clear and also be willing to change your perspective when necessary.

Remember that work is not a rehab facility

There is a rule of THREE that can help here. If the patterns of others get too much in the way of productivity, then yes, take action.

For example, if you have a strong HR department, start there. There can be some coaching and help individuals with a program for stress or anger management. Next is a performance improvement plan. Offer outside help. Or at least suggest going to a coach or therapist. Then, of course, you can, if you must, go for termination.

Rudeness and power games are not acceptable and need to be pointed out.

However, as Robert Sutton, Stanford professor, points out in his book “The No-Asshoe Rule,” if there is no willingness to change and grow, there is no point in keeping them on staff.

Self-awareness homework for leaders

Here are some suggestions that come from my book, “Invisible STRESS: It’s Not What YOU Think!”

This week is to observe your behavior. Write down situations that annoy you. Pick a few when you thought someone you work with is being difficult.

After the week, go back and look for common themes on your list.

Examples such as, did you feel discounted, or frustrated in not being heard, perhaps tired of defending your position.

Next is to understand by searching inside yourself for the patterns that connect.

Examples may be a sibling who always blamed you for problems. Or perhaps a parent who demanded you solve the problem or even a teacher who said your ideas were incorrect.

The last phase is to transform what no longer works for you. This is where the rubber meets the road, and you can choose to react differently. When that difficult person annoys oy, choose to respond more effectively.

Ask them a question rather than roll your eyes. Please invite them for coffee rather than walk away.

Transform how you respond and transform the situation.

Systems thinking needed now more than ever

To sum up, we are going through a very complex, multi-layered time in our world.

Stress is at an all-time high. Fear is landing in every home. Climate change is heating up (no pun intended).

Therefore, it is really an important time to be the leader who people will listen to.

Read a book, take a course, get a coach. Now is your time to learn and grow.

I believe it is possible to help the “difficult ” ones at work do better. Perhaps by modeling the compassionate and caring ways you handle upset and conflict at work.

Think about it and then take action. Considering that we are all connected is the key to making better, more effective work teams.

Be a change agent now. It’s what the world needs more than ever.

To your success,


P.S. Get a free copy of the introduction to my new book “Invisible Stress: It’s NOT What YOU Think!” please email me. Also, click here to take the quiz to see where you fit as a leader.

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Sylvia Lafair

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