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Managing difficult colleagues

Updated: Jul 28



If you’ve never had a difficult boss or colleague you are truly blessed. The old adage, ‘you join a company but leave your manager’ is real. I’ve been there too. At the time I didn’t have the tools or knowhow to manage myself or manage her well. I left her, not the company, after two painful years. It was so bad that I use to dream of getting a supermarket job as it could only be an improvement on the hell I was living. And let’s not forget, if it’s hell during the week, there’s a certain kind of hell we carry across the weekend right back into good old Monday morning.

So what would I have done differently if I knew what I know today about difficult people?

Start breathing

Under stress we shift into shallow breathing. It’s our fight, flight, freeze response. This response is hardwired into us from several million years of ancestors surviving life/death situations. Its function is to shift us into action to get out of the immediate danger. Our brain and body are flooded with action chemicals and in doing so these chemicals drastically reduce our ability to think straight, the one thing we really need around difficult people. Increasing oxygen into the brain slows down the release of these chemicals and helps us fire up the thinking brain which operates at a much slower speed.

Try box breathing. Police are trained to box breath in high stress situations. Quite simply breath in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, breath out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Until you start to feel calmer and more rational thoughts finally make an appearance.

It’s not personal

If this person is difficult with you, I bet there are a herd of confused, frustrated, stressed colleagues around her also feeling the same as you, but are too [fill in the blank] to admit it. So if you can let go of the idea that it’s your fault she's behaving badly, what’s more interesting to ask is 'What is this person’s unmet need?’ Perhaps it's to appear in control and competent or to be respected by her team. I’m not saying you have to like or agree with it, but if you can identify her unmet need, it offers insight and possible options. Is there anything you would be willing to do or say to help her address her unmet need? It’s a choice and you shouldn’t be sacrificing your integrity or values in the process but if you don’t consider this question, then you remain a helpless victim of the situation.

What are my options?

Believe it or not, we have options, and good options don’t come to mind in the heat of the moment (see Start breathing above), they come from the 6Ps (Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance). You know this. How many times have you driven home after another ugly encounter only to think “Doh if only I had said….”. So prepare and practice your preferred options quietly and calmly before the next situation occurs.

It’s a good idea to consider all your options however crazy, basic or terrifying they might be and get some clarity on the impact each one will have. Choose the options that make sense for you, not your drinking buddies. Here are some examples of options: I could do nothing and hope it goes away, I could work harder to deliver what she’s asking regardless of my view of them, *I could book a one-on-one to ask her ‘advice’ on how we could work better together, I could file a complaint to HR, I could escalate the issue up the ranks, I could complain to my colleagues, *I could get a coach to help me work through this more effectively, *I could look for a new job, I could go on sick leave, I could sabotage her plans by giving counter arguments to different departments who could block her. *I could tell her that I'm keen to understand her thinking and how I can support her, but find it hard while feeling intimidated or made to feel stupid. Hint, I’ve put an asterisk by some of the more effective options.

Be respectful

People generally aren’t all bad, you might find she’s a laugh in a social setting, the tension come from her worldview of something and more importantly, how it differs from yours. Neither of you own the truth you separately hold interpretations of it based on your individual upbringing and life experiences. It's best to keep your moral judgements in check otherwise they’ll seep out in your tone of voice and choice of words which will worsen her behavior towards you. Stick to speaking about the facts.

Have courage

The most difficult of them all. It requires digging deep and speaking up anyway from a place of integrity and respect. I have found it works. Not necessarily immediately but once the other person has had a chance to calm down and revisit what you said, a certain level of respect creeps in which can help build trust between you.

If you need to host a difficult conversation in order to address poor behavior effectively, reach out to me for a chat.


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