Youre bound to encounter them at some point in your career. Here are some survival tips for dealing with the tough ones in a professional manner.
Getting Along with Difficult People
You’re bound to encounter them at some point in your career. Here are some survival tips for dealing with the tough ones in a professional manner.
- By Harry Brelsford
- May 01, 1999
Few of us have to look very far for the empirical evidence
on what its like to work with difficult people.
Thats because, unfortunately, difficult people are
nearly everywhere. This month Im going to share
case studies about different kinds of difficult people
who have crossed my path. Ive changed their names.
What I havent changed are the insights I picked
up in the course of working with these various individuals.
Perhaps my experiences will prove comforting to you.
Ive concluded that I need my difficult clients.
They make me a better practicing MCSE. I call it, The
pipeline theory: The Trans-Alaska pipeline was ultimately
built to a higher standard because of relentless environmentalists.
If it werent for my nagging and unreasonable clients,
I would never have discovered some amazing workarounds
and solutions. I have two strategies with difficult clients:
path of least resistance and conversion.
My path of least resistance strategy in working with
difficult clients has been to just get it done
and get em out of my hair. And in the end I discovered
some pretty good workarounds. One such workaround was
for the traveling biotech CEO who needed a reliable dial-in
solution at a reasonable cost. Well, the reliability requirement
killed any idea of using RAS, so I went with PCAnywhere.
But when youre calling in from overseas, PCAnywhere,
with its remote control orientation, is hardly the cheapest
solution. Remote control solutions take place in real
time. The CEO couldnt just compose email messages
off-line, when its inexpensive, and then connect
to the home office for mail and file transfer activity.
The solution? I trained him to compose his email in WordPad
and then simply copy and paste the text into his email
application while connected via PCAnywhere. This lowered
his long-distance charges dramatically. And its
a solution I might not have otherwise discovered.
| Look for ways to train
the end user in some new tricks. Overcommunicate,
even if it bugs you to work with the recipient.
Consider the possibility that the difficult
person is simply in a difficult position.
By its very nature, my conversion strategy is more optimistic:
Todays difficult client is tomorrows referral
source. For this, I need look no further than Debbie,
the construction company controller. Over the course of
a year, I converted Debbie from a critic to
a fan by overcommunicating with her. Each step of the
way, be it verbally or in my written site reports, I purposefully
told her more than she probably wanted to know about the
project. Ultimately, I gained her trust (a key success
factor in consulting), and I educated Debbie in basic
network troubleshooting. Not only did I add yet another
member to the Brelsford fan club, but I reduced the number
of service calls I needed to place at this site. And along
the way, I learned a thing or two about Debbie and her
company. (It turns out Debbie wasnt really the problem.
It was her boss. Debbie was simply responding to the pressures
Youre reading the words of somebody who scored
high marks for being unmanageable on the Myers
Briggs assessment tests. This is a useful diagnostics
tool that allows you to discover what your gifts are or
arent. Its often used for employment screening
and counseling purposes. That said, my recent scores showed
high marks for independence and defiance. This isnt
always the stuff that successful Fortune 500 careers are
made of, but it is the stuff of consultants and entrepreneurs.
(Such gifts always score high back home in my native Alaska,
where every second car has this bumper sticker: We
dont give a damn how they do it Outside.)
So have I had a difficult boss? You bet. And heres
what I learned. First, get the work done. Focusing on
results has helped me get through, around, and away from
difficult bosses. Second, find a communication channel
that allows you to remain on speaking terms with this
difficult boss. I remember one working relationship where
our communications amounted only to email and voicemail;
but at least we had that.
|Leave your resentments at
the door. Bosses, who have their own resentments,
dont need to deal with yours. Be
professional; keep your issues
Try compliments, not criticism. Im not suggesting
you become a walking PR agency; just try out a different
attitude than that curmudgeonly techie persona. Endear
yourself to your stakeholders (bosses, clients, coworkers).
Compliments, not criticism, may well follow.
Last, try being a boss yourself. Perhaps the biggest
mindshift occurred when I actually became the boss. All
of a sudden, my boss wasnt such a bad guy after
all. And knowing what I wanted to see from my own employees,
Im now more sympathetic to his plight.
My strategies for working with difficult co-workers:
or wait. Most recently, a difficult
co-worker named Linda proved to be a more formidable fighter
than I imagined, so fighting wasnt going to solve
my difficulties with her. And flight isnt a viable
option; I like my job!
|Patience can be
So here, I adapted a strategy of waiting it out. It took
nearly two years. But ultimately Linda, by her own miscues,
was asked to leave the firm. I no longer have a difficult
|Practice that difficult
skill of listening. And when working with
a difficult employee, remember: Theres
usually plenty of blame to go around.
In this era of the free agent, junior consultants come
and go at will, Ive seen the good, the bad, and
the difficult. Lets take Sam, a recent loss from
my staff. Toward the end, Sams usually reliable
performance dropped off, and his communication wasnt
as sincere and open as before; in short, he became more
difficult to work with. It turns out that our firm wasnt
the right long-term fit for Sam. The go-go pace of billable
hour consulting didnt work for him (he took an in-house
position with a client). Perhaps these difficulties
could have been avoided if Id done a better job
of recruiting. I was so eager to obtain Sams services,
that perhaps I didnt hear him express his need for
stabilitya foreign concept to plenty of us MCSEs.
I think back to the blaming environment caused,
in part, by the difficult co-worker I mentioned earlier.
Up until the end, the goodness of fit difficulties
were always someone elses problem, according to
Linda. Why was it ultimately Linda who suffered her own
Now youre probably wondering, have I ever been
that difficult person? Regrettablyyes. In my college
summer hire days, I was probably a walking case study
in collegiate know-it-all-ism. (Im probably overdue
to make amends with some of my co-workers from those carefree
days of my youth.) However, I now actively hire college
kids during the summer at my consulting practice, and
having been in their shoes, I do believe Im a more
accommodating and understanding boss.
yourself so much that you overlook one
possibility: Perhaps youre the difficult
A second experience bears mentioning. When I was a sole
proprietor computer consultant a few years ago, I made
an interesting discovery: I had days where working with
myself was a chore. That is, I was that difficult person.
Then and there my awareness heightened towards being a
more compatible person to interact with. If you cant
work with yourself, who can you work with?
A Final Insight
Believe it or not, just saying things like, Good
morning, and Thank you, can make a big
difference in working with difficult people. Maybe its
because they hear it so rarely. Got any better ideas?
Send me some mail with your war stories.