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Tips for Working With Difficult Employees

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We’ve all dealt with frustrating people in the workplace. Who are the difficult employees, and what is the best way to handle them?

To address this challenge, we’ve got to start with the words we’re using. The most important step in handling difficult employees is to stop using the word “handle.”

That’s a term that chemical engineers use for hazardous material, not what people in an organization should use to describe their interactions with other human beings. Likewise, we should avoid phrases like “deal with” and “put up with.”

Thinking of everyone else as a person first will help dramatically in finding ways to engage and connect productively—even if their behavior is upsetting to you.

Disgusted at Work

© Flickr user Ryan Forsythe

A slideshow from Inc. Magazine lists ten types of coworker personalities and makes recommendations. Their list includes people like “The Undecider” (who can’t choose what he wants no matter how much time he has), “The Drama Queen” (who thrive on conflict), and “The Procrastinator” (who overcommits and misses deadlines). All of these people may be in your work place, but in all cases the advice is about the same: set boundaries. Or as we’ve noted before: define meaningful expectations for yourself and your colleagues.

That’s not the only advice out there, of course. A Business Insider piece lists 23 suggestions for obnoxious coworkers and another article from Business News Daily offers six solid ideas.

But there’s a better way to think about pet peeves with your fellow workers at the office, factory, warehouse, or jobsite. Instead of focusing on what’s bugging you, focus on why they are doing what they do. Here is a story along those lines:

Allison the Clock-Watcher

In one office, a middle manager seemed to be obsessed with time. You had to arrive by 8:00am. You couldn’t leave for lunch before noon, and couldn’t return before 1pm. And if you headed out of the office before the clock struck five, she gave you a stern look. People couldn’t stand Allison.

“We’re all salaried, so why does it matter?” they would ask. “I’ve got small children, so it’s impossible to be on time every single day without fail!” Others pointed out that meetings didn’t begin until after nine, and that many people preferred to work later to avoid rush hour. And just about everyone talked about Allison behind her back.

Finally, someone asked Allison about her focus on the time. They did so with appreciation rather than suspicion. “I’ve noticed that it’s really important to you that everyone keeps to a strict schedule. Why do you feel that way?”

“I grew up in a military family,” she explained. “Time has always been important to me.”

The questioner paused. “We’re not a military operation. It’s okay if it’s important to you, but it’s contrary to the rest of us—how we think about our work here.”

Allison was surprised, but she suddenly understood. “Oh. I never thought about that.” And everything changed from that day forward.

Change Through Understanding

It won’t always be the case that a conversation will lead people to stop acting in ways that annoy you. But the reason Fred plays loud music might just be because the noise of the air conditioning drives him crazy, and could be fixed (or you can get him some headphones.) Paula might always eat at her desk because her last job didn’t have a break room and she never thought about doing anything else. Jamal could be a complainer because of problems at home and work is his only outlet. And Elaine might be a perfectionist because she was unfairly punished for a past mistake.

Most people don’t want to annoy other people. Trying to find out why they do what they do is the best path forward. Don’t put others in a box, don’t stereotype or classify them. Ask questions and listen.

And then once you understand, everyone can get back to work.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


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