On the job with difficult people

Are annoying colleagues putting your patience to the test? Here are some expert tips on how to deal with them.

The silence in the room was palpable. All around the boardroom table, Vik Maraj could see grown men shifting in their seats and averting eye contact. Clearly, these high-level executives were intimidated by the domineering presence holding court at the head of the table. Bob,* the CEO, had a reputation for "chewing up and spitting out" consultants like Maraj, who had been brought in by the vice-president to coach the team on how to be more effective. Glaring at Maraj across the table, Bob asked in a crusty tone, "Why are we here?"

Fortunately, Maraj recognized the boss as a Sherman Tank — a blustering bully who annihilates anyone who dares question him. Maraj, who runs an Edmonton-based consulting firm called Unstoppable Conversations and gives presentations on the topic of difficult people to audiences around the world, knew being meek or defensive would be fatal to his assignment. Instead, he responded in a level and confident tone, explaining that the apparent fear in the room was negatively affecting decision-making and productivity. The result? Bob wanted to hear more and Maraj ended up working with the team for another 18 months.

Most of us have encountered difficult people like Bob in the workplace — the kind who shout and berate you in front of colleagues, or the kind who won’t let you get a word in edgewise because they’re too busy spouting off on a subject they know everything about.

It’s a topic that certainly resonates with CPAs, as evidenced by the thousands of people who tuned in on May 15, 2014, to hear CPA Canada’s webinar titled Dealing with Difficult People: Tanks, Clams, Know-It-Alls and More. Since it was first advertised, the webinar has attracted more than 14,245 registrants, making it the most popular webinar offered by the organization to date.

"Like many professions, CPAs are trained to deal with what’s logical and rational, but human beings aren’t always that way," says Maraj, who is the speaker for the webinar. "Our typical management training just doesn’t work when dealing with these types of people."

Maraj says problematic people come in a wide variety of guises (see "The many faces of difficult people" below) but Sherman Tanks are among the most common. These people bulldoze their way through a conversation and insist on having things done their own way. They will even get personal in their attacks. For tips on how to deal with the Tanks in your life, go to cpacanada.ca/mag-tanks.

Maraj thinks the key to dealing with people who rub us the wrong way lies in recognizing that they’re often embellished versions of ourselves. "They’re just more reliably aggressive or too quiet or too knowing," he says. "They’re not that far off from the norm, really, because we’re all difficult from time to time." Here are some ways to take the spikes out of the challenging personalities in your work environment.

Recognize your own triggers

"I think the biggest mistake people make is not accounting for their own triggers that are activated by a difficult person," says Maraj. "Because I have a tendency to be a know-it-all myself, for example, I’m always watching where I might be patronizing with other know-it-alls because they’re triggering me." He believes if you don’t work on addressing and eliminating your own potential triggers in difficult situations, you’ll be "riddled with difficult people throughout your life."

Richard Martin, a management consultant who is president and founder of Alcera Consulting in Montreal, says he’ll always look at how a difficult person is interacting with others. "I’ll note if this person is different only with me or only in certain circumstances," he says. "If I am the only one who has a problem every time I talk to this employee, maybe I’m causing some of that animosity and conflict."

Martin adds that managers who are dealing with difficult staff should take a good look at how they reproach their employees. "Are you delivering your criticism in a manner that is effective and helping to mentor them?" he asks. "If you’re always giving negative feedback, employees will either be defensive or shut up like a clam and never talk to you."

Don’t take it personally

Drawing on his 21 years of experience as an infantry officer in the Canadian Army, Martin knows never to assume people want to be problematic, either. "One of my officers was acting very difficult, but it turns out he was taking blood pressure medication that was throwing his system out of whack," says Martin. "It could always be psychological or other health issues that are causing the behaviour. Or it could be problems at home, financial stress, worries about a sick parent — it could be any number of things."

Sandy Tam, a Toronto accountant turned wedding photographer, has also come to recognize that other people’s behaviour doesn’t have much to do with her. "When I first started the business, I would come back crying after a long day," she says. "Now I know my clients have a million reasons why they’re behaving the way they are and all I can do is help guide them along the way." And what about clients who seem just too demanding or have unreasonable expectations right off the bat? "I tell them I don’t think it will work out," she says. "I think being honest is best, and if I can set them up with someone who’s a better fit, it works out for all of us."

Confront the culprit

When circumstances don’t allow for a clean break from a difficult person, a confrontation may be the best route. Winnie Johnson, manager of human resources for GE Capital Canada, says avoiding or ignoring an issue with a difficult person can breed resentment and ultimately affect business productivity. Instead, she suggests pulling people aside in the moment and pointing out how their actions are affecting you or the team. "Some people are socially obtuse and really don’t see how their behaviour affects others," she says. "But they’re open to feedback and will alter their actions accordingly."

Case in point: Johnson had a coworker who would often put her on the spot in meetings with questions she couldn’t answer right away. "I’m the kind of person who likes to ruminate about something before formulating an opinion, and his approach was making me defensive," she says. After she spoke to him, they came up with a code word Johnson uses to indicate she needs time to think about her answer. "He really didn’t know it was an issue until I brought it up."

For those unwilling to make changes, it may mean getting HR and senior management involved to alter reporting structures, duties or even the location of coworkers’ desks, says Johnson. "I’ve seen cases of bad chemistry where two people just don’t fit no matter how much you try," she says. "One underlying issue with difficult people is that they tend to view the world only through their own lens and just don’t have the capacity to see other perspectives."

Watch out for bullies (and report them)

Being in power can prompt prickly behaviour, says Roberta Cava, author of Dealing with Difficult People, a book first printed 25 years ago and now available in 17 languages. "I find it’s not the clients or coworkers who are the biggest problem but the bosses," she says.

Cava notes that most managers haven’t been trained to properly supervise others. Common mistakes include disciplining or bullying staff in front of colleagues or clients, failing to provide a list of expectations so employees can adequately fulfill them, and being unavailable when staff members need help. "When it’s the boss who is using unacceptable behaviour, she or he is often doing it to others as well," says Cava. "Check with coworkers if this is the case and then use ‘group warfare’ to report the boss. Have everyone in the group put their complaints in writing — with their signatures — and have a representative speak to the HR specialist within your company."

When it’s an outside supplier causing grief, Cava suggests saying, "That’s unacceptable behaviour and unless you stop that behaviour I refuse to deal with you." In some cases, a supervisor at the supplier’s company may need to be contacted.

Failing to recognize the negative impact of one supervisor almost cost Ken Sim a valued team member at his Vancouver-based company, Nurse Next Door. "We had a superstar employee who went from being the company’s biggest cheerleader to being disengaged when she got a new manager," says Sim, who is cofounder and director of the company. "The two were like oil and water and kept butting heads, and eventually the employee started caring less and less about the business." As a result, the manager gave her a terrible performance review and Sim was certain she was "on her way out."

Fortunately, Sim had concurrently brought on a new operations manager who recognized the problem and got the employee back on track by having her report to a different manager. She is still with the company to this day. "I really believe people don’t quit companies but the people they report to," says Sim. "In hindsight, I wish we had paid more attention to this issue in the past with other employees who had changed their behaviour drastically."

In the end, it’s also important to recognize that not everyone is going to get along all the time. "As long as there’s general respect, a little bit of conflict is healthy within a team because you need people to question basic assumptions," says Martin. "Otherwise, you’ll get surprised by competitors or other threats you hadn’t anticipated."

It never hurts to indulge in a little creative introspection, either. In other words, we shouldn’t forget to look at our own part in a difficult relationship or situation. As Martin points out, "It’s not necessarily your fault, but you may very well be contributing to the problem."



Are you dealing with a challenging personality in your workplace? Here are some of the most common types:

Snipers: they snipe their comments or barbs and pretend they were joking when you call them on it.

Exploders: they rant and rave, using tantrums to get you to back off on a subject they don’t want to deal with.

Clams: they dominate with silence, keeping tight-lipped simply to infuriate you.

Know-it-alls: they use their razor-sharp intellect to overwhelm you with knowledge.

Balloons: unlike real know-it-alls, they lie (often convincingly) about what they know and are essentially full of hot air.



Dealing with Difficult People: Tanks, Clams, Know-It-Alls and More

Dealing with Difficult People

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