Commonsense guidance for handling tough workplace problems

By Kenya Rutland

Do difficult people exist, or do we create them? Why haven't we learned how to deal with them? More importantly, why haven't they figured out how to not be that person?

The answers to those questions have eluded us for years, but we can begin to address them by considering the following.

Different Strokes

Our personalities make us different, and we have to accept these differences and recognize them as a potential ongoing source of conflict.

The lens with which we see the world and the priorities that guide us vary from person to person. Consider, for example, that some of us communicate with metaphors, think in terms of the big picture, and enjoy collaboration. Others prefer to dot their i's and cross their t's in the comfort of a quiet, private workspace. We must be able to identify these differences and be willing to accept them. We must also discuss them to improve the work environment we share.

Have the Tough Conversation

We all know that employees, vendors, and even family members can sometimes drive us crazy: especially when they don't deliver what they promise: and we often struggle when it comes to dealing constructively with them.

Do they want to make us angry? Are they miserable and seeking our company? Or, could it be that we are unclear in communicating what we expect of them?

We have to be open to having tough conversations and calling out their behavior. We have to face the conflict directly. If we aren't willing to do that, we can't expect changes to happen. We must own our response and be responsible for requesting a change in behavior, indirectly teaching them what we want and expect.

Try tracking difficult behavior and present your results to the offenders. It's not easy and may never be. You may be met with rebuttals or excuses. In some unique cases, you may even get appreciation. They may have been waiting for you to call them out on their behavior. Their response will let you know if they want to make the situation better and give you permission to take action accordingly.

What If It's You?

Finally, could it be that other people aren't difficult but you are? I'm sure the answer is "No, never, not me!" But remember, the question isn't for you to answer. What would others say about you?

For example, I have a 16-year-old daughter, and I suppose I take the fatherly approach that no one is good enough to date her. Imagine Mr. Wonderful coming to my door. Everyone loves him, even me, just not for her.

Despite his title, I make a list of why he isn't good enough. In truth, even if he fixed the flaws, my answer isn't changing. He has no chance and would hopefully figure that out. That works for me but could ensure my daughter a lonely life if she would prefer a partner in life and needed my approval.

I would need to acknowledge my hangups and let go. It's not about lowering standards or principles. I would need to find common ground and collaborate to find the best solution to improve the relationship. The point is, we don't have to like everything about one another. We simply need to define expectations and work to exceed them. This process starts with me; I can't wait for him if I truly want to resolve the issue.

The opening questions may remain, but we must take responsibility for our response to difficult behavior and poor performance and be willing to work to address challenges head-on in the relationships that matter.

We also have permission to shed those that are not productive. It's okay to fire friends, clients, and employees, allowing you more time to focus on relationships that matter for the benefit of your department, organization, or family. Doing so will also make you less likely to find your name on somebody else's "most difficult people" list.

Kenya Rutland is Learning & Development Catalyst & Chief Enthusiasm Officer at KJR Consulting in Manchester. He can be reached at kenya@kjrconsulting.com.

Hear more from Kenya Rutland about dealing with difficult employees at CBIA's Annual Human Resources Conference, March 20 from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm at the Crowne Plaza in Cromwell. For more information and to register, click here.