Difficult Behaviors at Work: Part 3

I Hate It When You Do That! (Do what?)

By Daniel Robin

Dealing with difficult people (or, more precisely, consultant-speak “behavior”) begins with identifying and naming that which is so exasperating – you know, the types of behavior that drive you nuts, that trigger a strong reaction in you.

Think, for a moment, about the people around you, and notice any behaviors that push your buttons. What’s “difficult behavior”?  Actions, or inactions, that seem less-than-helpful, or that get under your skin.  I offer the following list of behaviors that commonly set people off. It is by no means comprehensive, but may serve to remind you of the patterns you experience at work.

After reviewing this list, circle up to three that hit home strongly for you. Or write examples of some that do.

Which Behaviors Fry You?

  1. PWBA – “person with bad attitude” – complains constantly, blames others, exhibits negativity as if a victim of circumstances, with no apparent interest in taking responsibility.
  2. Space Invaders. People who “invade your space,” seem to not notice implicit social boundaries, who assume you want their (unsolicited) advice, or who try to “fix” you without checking to see if you think you’re in need of repair.
  3. Knee-jerk Resisters. People who polarize automatically, who oppose new ideas or outside influences without listening, take a contrary view without considering objective facts or other relevant opinions.
  4. Permanent Hijacking. People who wear anger like a habit – moody, edgy, hostile, or aggressive … even when they’re not upset about anything in particular. Often this hijacking is paired with aloof passivity (also called passive-aggressive).
  5. Ruthless Critic. Being harshly or tactlessly critical; picky, perfectionistic … for whom nothing is adequate, nobody and nothing is enough.
  6. Verbally Compulsive. Overly talkative types who want to “process” everything, for hours, when you just want to get on with it. Which reminds me of a story … you know, the other day ….
  7. Avoiders – people who seem to go out of their way to avoid confrontation, prefer to keep things vague, indirect, refusing to be pinned down to a commitment.
  8. Accommodators – folks who say “yes” to keep the peace or who withhold their honest perceptions, while in truth they don’t agree at all.
  9. Authoritarian bullies who compete for the one right answer, are “seldom wrong but often mistaken,” who condescend, sometimes treating others like children, or blow up and hurtle insults, curse, yell, etc.  Usually, they have no awareness that they are doing it.

What pushes your buttons? What did I miss? Consultants that provide long lists of annoying behaviors then ask “What did I miss?” Makes me mad, too.

Getting to Change

Here’s how to lead toward change while avoiding becoming “difficult” (1-9 above) yourself: separate the person from the behavior. On the one hand, how they act drives you crazy. And from their perspective, what are they trying to achieve that’s worthwhile? No idea? Good starting point.

It may be hard to believe, but just like you, the person behind each of these difficult behaviors has a positive intention. That intention may be completely separate from the result they are getting, but it’s there. Look for and identify it, and then you can talk about alternative approaches that will work for both of you. For example (Ruthless Critic): “I can see that you are trying to contribute to the project, and for me, it works better when you talk about what you liked before you dig into where you see room for improvement.”

If you don’t know what the person is trying to achieve, ask. They’ll know. “I notice that you X, … what is that intended to do?” Or simply, “What’s your goal [with that behavior]?” … and then “What will that do?” Sure enough, you’ll hear what they thought you knew all along … their positive purpose!

Sometimes there’s a tradition of enabling or allowing a difficult behavior to continue because nobody has a clue what the person is trying to achieve. All anybody can see is the “problem behavior” which grows and grows until there’s a seeming monster in the room (formerly know as your colleague, boss or co-worker). What was once something you probably found just annoying or mildly disrespectful becomes harder to distinguish from the person’s valuable core – where they are successful, their unique genius, or irrefutable strengths. Moral: intervene early and keep current. Don’t build a deficit economy out of your emotional bank account with that person or group.

When to Obtain Outside Assistance

In cases involving groups that are volatile or emotionally charged, another option would be to ask management or a neutral outsider to step in and meet with the group to clear up “how we work together.” This is no substitute for one-on-one coaching, but at least this can give a heads up about “bothersome” behaviors to avoid creating a hostile or threatening work environment. Perhaps put in writing the agreement that everyone has been asked to uphold, and ask for signatures to acknowledge their understanding and cooperation. This sets the tone and also helps protect the company legally.

The important thing is to keep the communication channels open. If you can discuss the behavior when it is just beginning to turn into a pattern, you can speak plainly and directly to the issue without a big emotional charge. From this more neutral place, collaboration is possible and easy solutions are within reach.