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Human Resources
Managing Difficult People
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By Paul B.Thornton

"Heīs driving me crazy!"
Managers deal with a wide range of personalities. Most people are cooperative and reasonable. However, some employees are very difficult to be around and work with. A human resources manager states, "Theyīre totally focused on their own agenda and needs. They cause tension and conflicts. Difficult people absorb a lot of a managerīs time and attention."

Three types of difficult people are:

  • The Aggressor
  • The Victim
  • The Rescuer
You may never "like" these people. But it is important that you understand them and develop techniques to help them be more productive.

The Aggressor
Aggressive people are demanding and loud. They donīt listen and they talk over people. Their attitude is, "Iīm right, youīre wrong." Their view of the world is win/lose, and of course, they must "win." Some of the words used to describe aggressive people include: "Sherman tank," "bull in the china shop," and "bullies." A participant in one of my seminars commented, "Aggressive people talk down to people. Theyīre know-it-alls. They make rude comments, followed by biting sarcasm."

Some of the comments Iīve heard aggressive people make include:

  • "If you donīt like it, leave. Itīs my way or the highway."
  • "You donīt know what youīre talking about. Iīm right."
  • "Drop whatever youīre doing –I need this completed ASAP."
When dealing with aggressive people, start by letting them vent. They often are angry and need to blow off steam. Use active listening skills to indicate youīre trying to understand their views. Aggressive people arenīt used to people really listening to them. Most often itīs point, counterpoint, reload, and attack again.

Sometimes itīs hard to get a word in when the aggressor is verbally attacking. Try "clipping." This technique allows you to get a few words in such as "Yes," "No," "I agree," "No, youīre wrong." This often causes the attacker to back off and take a breath.

Aggressive people are often tolerated because they do get things done. The problem is that they also cause tension and upset people. In addition, because they dominate the conversation, other people donīt contribute, which results in lost input.

Aggressive people need to realize there is more than one right answer. Their opinions are valid and valued, but other people have equally valid ideas.

The Victim
Harvard researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey describe victims as "BMW" people. They bitch, whine and moan. They blame others for their problems and come across as timid and helpless. Their attitude is, "People donīt understand how bad I have it." A student in one of my courses said, "Victims are depressing to be around. They feel sorry for themselves and blow problems out of proportion. They waste a lot of time and donīt take any responsibility for making changes."

Victims like to "blamestorm." Theyīre very good at discovering reasons and finding people to "blame" for their performance shortfalls. Their stories and explanations are purposefully incomplete. They leave out the details that indicate their inability to get the job done.

Some of the comments Iīve heard victims make include:

  • "Why does this always happen to me?"
  • "I canīt get it done. I never have time for myself."
  • "They wonīt give me the information I need."
When dealing with "victims" take the time to listen to their complaints. A middle manager states, "Victims complain so much, no one really takes the time to listen to them. They feel neglected." Feed back your understanding of what the victim has said. Try to force the victim to prioritize his or her problems. Next, facilitate a discussion to help him/her choose an appropriate course of action to solve the problem.

Victims need to realize they are not helpless. Find ways to help them achieve some short-term wins. A colleague states, "Victims have strong psychological needs for attention and recognition. Recognize them for taking responsibility and achieving success, not for whining."

The Rescuer
The rescuer is the person whoīs always willing to help other people. Their major need is to be liked and appreciated. "Iīll help" are their favorite words. Rescuers are very good at recognizing when other people need help, and they know how to jump in to save the day. A consultant friend remarks, "The rescuer avoids confrontation. Theyīre `yesī people. They say `yesī without thinking through the implications. Oftentimes they overcommit and their own work doesnīt get done."

Some of the comments Iīve heard rescuers make include:

  • "I hesitated to fire non-performers. I was afraid of ruining someoneīs life. It was my responsibility to take care of people."
  • "I habitually took care of other peopleīs problems."
  • "I know this is your project, but let me add it to my list to take the burden off of you."
When dealing with rescuers itīs important to hold them accountable to performing all of their job responsibilities. If they have excess capacity the manager should assign them bigger bricks to carry.

Aggressive people find, and sometimes create victims. Victims are easy prey for the bully. Victims donīt get the job done but always have excuses why itīs not their fault. Rescuers jump in to save the victim. Everyone wins! This cycle can go round and round, each playing his/her role and in effect supporting the behavior of the other two.

You can do several things when dealing with difficult people.
1. Listen to them. Let them know you want to understand their point of view.

2. Make them feel valued and appreciated.

3. Have them read this chapter. Indicate we all play these roles to some degree. Ask them which role they play most often. Discuss the impact that role has on others.

4. Indicate what you would like to see them do more of and less of.

5. Ask them to commit to making one or two changes.

Dealing with difficult people is a challenge. However itīs possible to help them be more productive and effective in doing their job.

Applying the Concept
Jim Ligotti, Senior Technical Manager, Sikorsky Aircraft

First and foremost, I try to get an understanding of whatīs driving the personīs behavior. Itīs also important to remain calm and communicate openly with difficult people. Aggressive people are looking to be recognized and rewarded. I work with the person to help him see the fastest way he can achieve his goals. Aggressive people produce negative vibes, which impacts their ability to be successful. Co-workers donīt go the extra mile to help irritating people. I try to help aggressive people make that connection. Less aggression and more cooperation goes a long way.

The issue with victims is that they believe they cannot get the whole task completed, because inevitably something will be outside their control. This makes me think of elephant training. The young elephant is restrained by one leg. While elephants are young and not very strong, they are unable to get free. Over time elephants becomes conditioned. When they are older and stronger and could get free, they donīt even try. Their attitude is; why try now; itīs never worked before. This is similar to the victim. The key is to retrain them. They have to believe they can control their destiny. Help them develop a new, positive, can-do attitude. Help them plan and achieve short term wins. As they learn and "win," increase their field of influence.

Rescuers want to help their teammates but often donīt see the negative effects of missed commitments. I try to help these people realize that offering to help and missing their own commitments is worse than not offering at all. Rescuers have to learn to focus first on their own commitments. Sometimes it helps to show rescuers how to prioritize and manage their time effectively.

Dealing with difficult people is an investment in time. These people are executing "learned" behaviors. I coach and mentor them on more effective ways to reach their goals. It takes time to build trust. However, when people truly believe youīre trying to help them succeed, they listen and respond.

Applying the Concept
William H. Denney, Ph.D., Quality Consultant Aggressor:

Hold your ground. Donīt change your position out of intimidation. Interrupt by saying their name until they stop to listen. Go back and clarify their first point. Slows them down and shows you are listening. Only address the key issue and donīt get tangled up in miscellaneous stuff. Donīt piss them off and embarrass them. Give them a way out. Seek a win-win if possible. If you are in the right position, donīt be afraid to fire an aggressor that is damaging teamwork. Regardless of technical skill and or hard work, aggressors can demoralize and destroy a company.

If the aggressor is your boss then thatīs another story. You have to figure out if he/she is a detail person or a big picture person and give them what they are most comfortable with. But thatīs another story.

Listen and empathize. Ask for specifics that you can analyze and comment on, or correct wrong perceptions. Focus on solutions and the future, not the past. If necessary, draw a line in the sand and tell them that talking about complaints without solutions is unproductive and time wasting. Donīt be afraid to tell them they are undermining company success by affecting the morale of others. Offer to help them find another job.

The rescuer is more of a "know-it-all." Be prepared for your discussions with this person. They think they know more than you and others. Be appreciative, respectful and sincere about their contribution. Take an indirect approach to help them see your point to avoid putting them on the defensive. Use soft words -- maybe, perhaps, we, us, etc. Help them understand that there is time for others to have a learning curve on what needs to be done. Help them understand that it is in the companyīs interest to have more knowledge in the pipe line. Use them as a coach to others if possible. If you are in a position to do so, get them into team training. Even facilitator training will enlighten their views and show them how to work with others.

Advice on dealing with difficult people:
Everyone means well. Listen and understand before you try to give your opinion or position. Try to determine what circumstance in the past has molded their position. Repeat without agreeing so they know you understand their concerns Get their input on how to improve the situation. Pass it along or act on it if possible. Strive for a win-win situation. There is often a middle ground. If nothing works, donīt let them undermine morale. Offer to help them find another job.

Article courtesey of Family Business Strategies.

About the author: Paul B.Thornton can be reached via email or at http://www.betheleader.com. Paul B.Thornton is a consultant, professor and author of several books. This article is an excerpt from his latest book, The Triangles of Management and Leadership.

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