Dealing with difficult people at work is at the top of every complaint list from every office in every country on the planet. Guess that means it is an international problem!

Last week in a seminar I was talking about the fact that work is not a rehab facility and two people stopped my talk by applauding hard and loud. So, I stopped what I was going to say and asked why they had such enthusiasm.

The bolder of the two (there were several hundred people in the audience) said "because I am so sick and tired of making excuses for some of the jerks I have to work with. They should go to rehab and leave us alone".

I took a breath wondering what would happen next. The quieter one then said, "Yes, we need to figure out how to test people for the nastiness gene."

I took a left turn from my prepared program to give the employees of this much respected organization a chance to ask questions and vent some of their frustrations.

By the time the presentation was over there was an agreement among most of those present, that there has to be a better way to deal with difficult people beyond just pointing fingers at them.

We made progress. There was a shift to thinking about "difficult situations" instead of "difficult people". Rather than lurching from upset to upset and applying Band-Aid solutions that did not change or improve anything, there was a willingness to look at how a system operates. In fact, many in the audience were willing to look at their own part in creating a difficult situation rather than merely staying out of harm's way and blaming others.

Here's some of the strategy:

  • Systems' thinking offers a path to real change in the form of a deep, cohesive, and comprehensive interpretation of problem relationships. Each of us is part of a system and we must grasp our part in the puzzle of difficult people.
  • Systemic solutions will ultimately save organizations from the wasted energy of lawsuits, disengaged employees, and excessive time spent putting out fires in the gossip mill.

Consider these questions:

  • Why is conflict and upset with "difficult" people almost universal in workplaces?"
  • Why does conflict seems to arise almost immediately in work relationships, even before colleagues really have a chance to get to know each other?
  • Why is there such a propensity for conflict to fester and worsen rather than just burn itself out on its own?
  • Why do most HR interventions fail to reduce the level of conflict at work?

Here is a systemic way of looking at why we get so annoyed with difficult people and usually never even see that others may be pointing our way as one of "those types".

  1. Conflict and finger pointing runs rampant in the workplace because of our natural and universal tendency to bring ingrained behavior patterns from our childhood with us to work.
  2. Because of the roles we played as kids, we come into new situations at work with expectations of how the others we work with are going to behave.
  3. Unless the workplace system is changed, we get into a familiar rut of rote responding and "I told you so" reactions.
  4. Our tendency is to single out a "difficult" person and target them as "the problem".

To reduce conflict and increase productivity companies need to become systems prepared. This requires some new thinking so that folks (like those at my seminar) who want others tested for the nastiness gene, begin to see they are also part of the problem.

Organizations that come to grips with the emotional side of work are in a position to help teams look at the tensions as everyone's responsibility. Employees are encouraged to speak out openly about their upset and encouraged to talk about how they see themselves participating rather than merely look at the other person as the culprit.

This helps individuals become more thoughtful and more inventive in creating a work environment where gossip and office politics have little chance to survive.

Your next step in personal leadership development is to begin to identify your role in work relationships that you see as difficult, rather than point the blame finger and say "it's their fault."

So here's your homework:

For one week, write down situations that annoy you, those moments when you thought someone was being difficult. This is the OBSERVE step.

After one week, go back over your list and look for a common theme, then think about where this theme has come up before. Here's a hint: was it like when your sibling always told you what to do or always blamed you for everything? Was it like when your parents demanded you do something? Or even like a teacher who said your ideas weren't correct? This is the UNDERSTAND step.

Finally, you have the opportunity to make change happen for you. This is where the rubber meets the road, you've got to do it differently, not respond from a patterned reaction. When the "difficult" person annoys you, make the choice to respond differently. Ask them a question instead of rolling your eyes and walking away, and begin to see your part in this dynamic. This is your TRANSFORMATION step.

Once you have completed all three steps, you're on the way to finding the way OUT of dealing with difficult people, in other words, you're learning a new way of relating.

Here's to getting along better at work!