To deal with difficult people, first recognize that difficult people are simply people who don't feel safe.
Psychological safety is a technical-sounding term that is getting thrown around a lot recently. Google discovered that psychological safety was the one thing that was present in productive teams. When psychological safety wasn't present, teams weren't nearly as productive.
When you experience psychological safety, you are able to relax. You can stop watching your back. You can be creative and invest your energy freely because you know that you aren't going to regret it.
When we say that a person is a "difficult person" what we really mean is that this person isn't relaxed and investing themselves freely. That person is fighting, shoving their way through their work, and generally causing a challenge for everyone around them.
First, let's identify a few types of difficult people. Then, we can uncover how those people are missing the relaxed-productivity of psychological safety. Finally, I'll give you some hints on how to deal with them productively.
Here are a few examples of difficult people you might recognize.
- Robin is the 20-year veteran office manager of a logistics company. She has conflicts with most of the new employees when they don't follow her very specific instructions on office protocols. There are signs all over the office with instructions on how to use various filing cabinets, computer systems, and conference phones. Employees routinely get a lecture from Robin if they fail to follow her rules.
- Tim is an aggressive boss. His employees know that when things don't go his way, he will raise his voice and use name-calling as a strategy to solve the problem. People usually give him what he wants because they want him to stop his aggressive behaviors.
- Anna acts swiftly. She's so fast at problem solving that she often solves problems without discussing the problem with her team. Although this behavior sounds productive at first, her fast action often undermines her coworkers who are already working on the problem.
It's easy to see how each of these difficult people is causing a lack of psychological safety in the office. Robin is nitpicking; Tim is shouting; and Anna is undermining. But look closer. They are each doing these behaviors because they themselves don't feel a sense of psychological safety.
Robin is worried that she'll look bad if the office isn't tip top. Tim is worried that he'll fail as a boss if he doesn't get his way. Anna is worried that she'll miss an opportunity to heroically solve a problem. None of them are aware that their behaviors are weighing so heavily on others because each one of them is desperately trying to do the only thing they know how to do.
So, what can you do to ease their tension and increase your chances of having a productive working relationship with them? Ironically, you can tell them they are doing a good job.
You see, difficult people are caught in an extreme feedback loop. They are desperate to do a good job, but they don't check in with their coworkers to see how their efforts are being received. They become desperate to get positive feedback so they do more of the same efforts towards doing a good job.
From the outside, these people seem unreasonably stubborn and uncharitable. From the inside these people feel diligent and hardworking.
To work with difficult people, genuinely find something you believe they do well, then tell them so. Become the person who gives them the honest positive feedback they so desperately crave. Align with them and then don't be afraid to ask specifically for what you need from them. Difficult people are powerful people. It takes a lot of power to be difficult. Once you get on the same page with these folks, you can move mountains together.
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