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Keeping Your Cool: Dealing with Difficult People

By: Dr. Rhonda Savage

People today have a short fuse—everyone is stressed.  And when people are stressed, they can become difficult to be around. Chances are, you’ve worked with at least one difficult person in your organization.  You recognize the behaviors of a difficult person, such as a bad attitude, apathy, difficulty handling change, and terrible customer service. Difficult people give you the silent treatment or worse--they can be verbally aggressive. 

Unfortunately, if you don’t address this kind of behavior, one of two things will happen:  Employees will become resentful and think less of you as a leader.  

 Employees will start modeling the behavior of the person who is not being corrected.  

It’s important to understand that there’s only one reason anyone behaves in an unacceptable manner: the person gets away with it! So, who’s responsible for difficult people? The answer is anyone who tolerates them. Every time you give in to a difficult person, every time you choose not to confront him or her, you allow a difficult person to continue this rude behavior. 

What does a difficult person in your office look like?  Often, he is the one who gets the better schedule. He may come in late or leave the office early, leaving his or her work for others to finish. The individual might take a longer lunch, hold long personal calls during work hours, or refuse to lend a co-worker a hand. Individuals in the office don’t ask the person to work with them because they don’t like the individual.    

So, how can you change this situation? Confrontation is one answer. Unfortunately, it can be hard for anyone to address this issue. However, it’s important to understand that dealing with the issue will facilitate a more harmonious atmosphere in the office, leading to increased productivity, improved morale, and a healthier bottom line.  

You’ll need to set boundaries, expectations and guidelines, and then hold the person accountable for his or her behaviors. Here are some tips, whether you are an employee dealing with a difficult supervisor, a worker dealing with a co-worker, or a manager dealing with a challenging employee:  

Owner or Manager to Employee: Have you ever had an employee who was demanding, condescending, abrupt, tearful, insecure, and high maintenance—yet he or she did an excellent job? Were you worried about losing the person because of the great work? Just because someone does great work doesn’t make him or her a good employee. If you have a person whose behavior is affecting the morale and productivity in the office, and you’ve already coached the employee on the issue, this person needs a formal corrective review.  

The employee should be given a copy of the corrective review; a signed copy is placed in his or her employee file. Let the employee know the specific behavior you need to have changed, your clearly defined expectations, and a time frame to work within. Have a follow-up meeting within a designated time period to give the employee the feedback needed. Be sure to provide clear oversight.  

Employee to Manager:  What if the difficult person is your boss or manager? Approach your employer or supervisor first by asking: “I need to talk with you about something.  Is now a good time?” If not, schedule a time to talk. Begin by expressing your intention and your motives. Explain your concern about a loss of business and unhappy clients, and that your intentions are to help make the workplace not only productive but also satisfactory to clients.  

Another approach is to talk about how certain behaviors in the office are decreasing efficiency. Explain that you’d like to talk about ways to improve the systems in the office. By first addressing the issues as though you’re tackling a problem or a system issue, your supervisor or employer will not be defensive. Always be tactful, professional, calm, and polite. Ask your employer or manager for his or her goals and offer to give suggestions to help meet those goals.  

Use the “feel, felt, found” method: “Many of our customers feel uncomfortable when you speak to the other employees; they’ve expressed how they’ve felt when you left the room. I’ve found if I convey customer concerns to my supervisor that our sales have increased.” 

Employee to Employee:  If you have a problem with a co-worker, the best course of action is to go to that person directly. Do not talk about the issues with your fellow co-workers behind the other person’s back! Go to the person privately and tell them about it.  

There are three steps to this.    

Let the person know you’d like to talk about something that’s been bothering you. Ask him or her, “Is this a good time?”  

Describe the behavior with dates, names, and times. Be specific. Begin by saying:  “I’d like to talk with you about this. This is how I felt when….” Speak only for yourself and how the behavior affects you.  

Describe what you would like to see changed. Try to resolve the issue first personally and privately. If the situation does not change, request a meeting between yourself, the other person and your employer.  Everyone can choose his or her attitude. Each day, when someone walks out the front door to go to work, that person has a choice in how his or her day will play out.  You can’t always choose the people who surround you but you can try to make them aware of their behaviors.  If you have a difficult person in your life, set the boundaries, explain your expectations, and then hold that person accountable.  Be calm when you’re doing this!  The person who is calm and asks the questions is the one in control. 

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About the Author(s)

Dr. Rhonda Savage is an internationally acclaimed speaker and CEO for a well-known practice management and consulting business. As past President of the Washington State Dental Association, she is active in organized dentistry and has been in private practice for more than 16 years. Dr. Savage is a noted speaker on practice management, women’s issues, communication and leadership, and zoo dentistry. For more information on her speaking, visit www.DentalManagementU.com, or e-mail rhonda@dentalmanagementu.com.