Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dealing with Difficult People

Fredrick the Great once said, “The more I get to know people, the more I love my dog.” Dealing with difficult people in the office is nothing new. You know the ones I’m speaking of; the short- tempered gossips, perfectionist, slackers, clueless, and everything in between. Not everyone can be as pleasant to work with as you and I.

I am reminded of the story of a newlywed farmer and his wife who were visited by her mother, who immediately demanded an inspection of the place. The farmer genuinely tried to be friendly to his new mother-in-law, hoping that it could be a friendly, non-antagonistic relationship. All to no avail though, as she kept nagging them at every opportunity, demanding changes, offering unwanted advice, and generally making life unbearable for the farmer and his new bride.

While they were walking through the barn, during the forced inspection, the farmer’s mule suddenly reared up and kicked the mother-in-law in the head, killing her instantly. It was a shock to all no matter their feelings toward her demanding ways.

At the funeral service a few days later, the farmer stood near the casket and greeted folks as they walked by. The pastor noticed that whenever a woman would whisper something to the farmer, he would nod his head yes and say something. Whenever a man walked by and whispered to the farmer, however, he would shake his head no, and mumble a reply.

Very curious as to this bizarre behavior, the pastor later asked the farmer what that was all about. The farmer replied, “The women would say, ‘What a terrible tragedy,’ and I would nod my head and say ‘Yes it was.’ The men would ask, ‘Can I borrow that mule?’ and I would shake my head and say, ‘can’t, it’s all booked up for a year.’”

That humorous story reminds us that not only will difficult people be with us, but how we want to respond to them is a universal emotion. Learning how to relate to difficult people will vary according to the personality types you are dealing with. While the person you are irritated with may never change, understanding a few basic concepts will at least ease your frustration. Allow me to share a few simple guidelines when dealing with difficult people.

First, treat the difficult person the way you want to be treated. It’s a timeless principle, but timeless for a reason. It’s effective. You may never change the behavior patterns of the difficult people in your organization, but when you model courteous, professional behavior, hopefully somewhere down the line they will get a clue.

A difficult person, more times than not, is that way by choice. An advisor to President Lincoln suggested a certain candidate for Lincoln’s cabinet. But Lincoln refused, saying, “I don’t like the man’s face.” “But sir, he can’t be responsible for his face,” insisted the advisor. “Every man over forty is responsible for his face,” replied Lincoln, and the subject was dropped. Just as you are responsible for your face, so is that difficult person. It’s not your responsibility to change him, just treat him the way you want to be treated.

Second, take the high road. Lowering yourself to the level of that difficult person is never the answer. Don’t allow yourself to be drawn in to another’s bad behavior by behaving bad yourself. Keep your emothons and attitude in check. Don’t be like the man who was told by his physician, “Yes indeed, you do have rabies.” Upon hearing this, the patient immediately pulled out a pad and pencil and began to write. Thinking the man was making out his will, the doctor said, “Listen, this doesn’t mean you’re going to die. There is a cure for rabies.” “Oh, I know that,” the man said. “I’m just making a list of all the people I’m going to bite.”

John Maxwell said, “The disposition of a leader is important because it will influence the way the followers think and feel. Great leaders understand that the right attitude will set the right atmosphere, which enables the right responses from others.” When difficult people surround you, take the high road, perhaps others will follow you. But if not, then heed to advice of my next point.

Third, protect the morale and productivity of your organization. As a leader, it’s your duty to protect your team’s integrity and morale. Allowing a difficult person to continue on in his or her job, in the end, may cause more harm than good. As someone once said, “What you tolerate, you promote.”

Treating the difficult person the way you want to be treated, taking the high road, and protecting morale are key components of your leadership. When people in your office are walking on egg shells around a difficult person, it can be a messy situation. Do your team a favor- act with compassion, act with conviction, and act quickly.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

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