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    Not quite toxic but a little bit poisonous: How to deal with difficult people at work

    April 19, 2016 by Alison Hill

     

    With any luck, your company has a robust hiring process and has managed to follow the first rule for working with toxic people: don’t hire them in the first place. But if they haven’t, or if you have to work with somebody who is difficult but not instantly recognisable as a toxic personality, here are some ways to smooth the journey.

    You’re likely to feel bewildered, used and manipulated by a co-worker at some time in your career. It may be a manager who expects you to work overtime or at weekends with no warning to complete a project – and who then takes the credit for it on Monday morning. It may be a colleague who belittles you in a team meeting by betraying something you told them in confidence, or who gossips about others in a way that is uncomfortable and makes you wonder what they say about you behind your back.

    These people are not diagnosable psychopaths or sociopaths for the most part, although they might display some of the characteristics used in psychiatric diagnoses.

    Steven Booker, Challenge Consulting’s Principal Psychologist explains that there are differing levels of toxic behaviour: ‘Extremely psychopathic or narcissistic people are often unable to get or hold onto long-term employment  because their extreme selfishness, lack of empathy, intolerance, anger and aggression are incompatible with the strongly team and values-oriented culture of most employers’, he says. ‘However, there are a group of people that we might call “subclinical psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists” whose personalities are no so extreme that although they can be quite selfish, aggressive or toxic, they are still able to be effective in some organisations, especially those that have a culture which values only results without any emphasis on values, teamwork and having empathy for clients, staff and customers. These people can often be misperceived as successful and high functioning because of their confidence, cold-blooded nature and lack of fear’, Booker says. ‘The real challenge when recruiting is to identify people with the drive, ambition, confidence and competitiveness to get strong results while also ensuring that they have sufficient empathy and care for others to be able to work as part of an effective team. Psychological assessment is one of the best tools available to select people with this combination of traits and help organisations reduce the risk of hiring toxic people.’

    According to business journalist Gregory Bresiger, the difficult people most commonly found in the workplace are these:

    • Gossipmongers: They spread fear by spouting hearsay.
    • Bullies: These employees repeatedly put others down by verbally humiliating them.
    • Saboteurs: These are people trying to gain an advantage by hurting fellow workers.
    • Spotlight stealers: They take credit for others’ work and hoard the limelight in team projects.

    Dealing with difficult people takes special skills. Luckily, some of these can be learned. Here are a few ideas that work.

    1. Know yourself. Know what presses your buttons. When you are going to be in a situation with the difficult person, such as a one-on-one meeting or a project planning session, prepare by focusing on what is important to you and the outcome you want. What would be unacceptable? Then think about what the difficult person might say or do, and plan how you might react.
    2. Take a step back. When a person is being difficult, it is easy to either give in or get angry. I remember working with somebody who would persist with an idea long after everybody in the team had already nixed it. More than once, the rest of the team gave in and let her run a project her way – often with the predictable negative outcome. On one occasion a team member got visibly angry. If only we’d known better. Removing ourselves from the situation – either by mentally taking a time out or by actually adjourning the meeting – and looking at the dispute objectively to plan a rational response would have been more productive and more likely to lead to the outcome we wanted.
    3. Let them experience victory. Many difficult people like to win, and to feel they ‘have the last word’ on an issue. You can refuse to give in to them while simultaneously helping them to save face and preserve their dignity. William Ury, author of the influential 1991 book Getting past no: Negotiating with difficult people, calls this ‘building a golden bridge’. As Ury says, ‘if you want him to acknowledge your point, acknowledge his first.’ Helping a difficult person to save face and feel they are getting their own way, at least some of the time, can help to neutralise their effect.

     


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