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Dealing with Difficult People – Workplace Strategies

Are you frustrated by one particular person at work? Difficult people in the workplace not only make you feel terrible, they can thwart your career progress. If you’re beginning to dread going to work just because you’d rather avoid one painful person, it’s time to seek a solution. Let’s look at important strategies for dealing with difficult people at work.

Examine Yourself First

It takes courage to entertain the idea you could be wrong, but it’s better than embarrassing yourself by falsely accusing a colleague. Most importantly, notice whether you are the only person affected by the difficult behaviour, or are others affected too? If one or more of your peers are experiencing problems with the same person, you can safely conclude it’s not your fault.

If, however, you seem to be the only person affected, it’s time to take a close look at you. Ask whether the problem might be you. If you’ve been in similar difficult work relationships in the past, this is a red flag indicating you could be carrying your own difficulties from one situation to the next.

Empower yourself by taking stock of your own recent behaviour. Be totally honest with yourself. Examine your interaction with the problem person. Should you take the blame for part of the problem? Is there anything you could do or change to make the situation better?

Protect Yourself

If you’re tempted to embark on a public mission to correct the difficult person’s behaviour, stop. Set yourself some boundaries. Most importantly, be careful what you say. Restrain from gossiping about the person and don’t say things you might regret later. 

Protect yourself further by only communicating with appropriate, trustworthy people. Attempting to enlist every other staff member to form your own personal support team is not appropriate. You’ll only open yourself up to backstabbing and gossip. If you feel you need to speak with someone, select people carefully. Don’t involve people who cannot help, who are not affected or who have nothing to do with the problem.

If you decide to confront the difficult person or talk to a manager or co-worker, remain calm and professional. Don’t cry or show emotion. Getting people to feel sorry for you will not help the problem. For the most successful outcome, it’s important you retain the respect of your co-workers.

Question Your Reaction

Your reaction will give you insight into the difficult person’s motivation – are you playing into their hands, giving them exactly what they want? 

Understand that it’s your reaction to the person’s behaviour that makes you unhappy. What are you feeling, saying, doing or NOT doing that’s making you unhappy?

  • Do you feel used, undermined, embarrassed, frustrated or degraded?
  • Are you lashing out with angry statements, only to regret it later?
  • Are you saying ‘yes’ when you’d normally say ‘no’?
  • Are you staying silent in meetings when you’re usually an outgoing and valuable contributor?

After questioning your reaction, can you see whether your behaviour is valid and reasonable or an inappropriate over-reaction?

Understand Their Motivation

Can you understand why the person is displaying negative behaviour? Is there an underlying reason or motivation? Understanding the person’s motivation will help you choose the most appropriate solution strategy. In his book, Coping With Difficult People, Dr. Robert M. Bramson classifies difficult people into seven behaviour types. These include:

  1. Know it All Expert – Acts superior, sarcastic and intimidating. Makes themselves feel better by making you feel incompetent.
  2. Hostile/Aggressive – Loud, abusive and forceful. Tries to bully people.
  3. Complainer – Complains loudly about everything. Wastes your time. Asks you to fix complaints without offering to help.
  4. Silent/Unresponsive – Difficult to engage in conversation. Prefers to be ignored.
  5. Super-Agreeable – Agrees to everything. Never fulfils promises.
  6. Negativist – Whinges and makes negative comments. Finds many excuses not to work.
  7. Indecisive – Waits for someone else to make decisions. Avoids starting work.

In all cases, the person’s behaviour is selfish. They are trying to get what they want. A closer look at each type reveals the first 3 behaviour types are attention seekers, while the last 4 behaviour types are attention avoiders.

Behaviour-Appropriate Strategies

To improve your chances of a successful outcome, you’ll need a basic plan for dealing with your particular situation. As discussed above, difficult people come in all shapes and sizes. There is no single method for dealing with difficult people at work. So what’s the best strategy for dealing your problem? It depends on the type of behaviour:

  • Dealing with Attention Avoiders: Before confronting attention avoiders, try to understand the underlying problem. Does the person feel inadequate or suffer low self-esteem? Perhaps they are simply lazy or lack motivation? Confront the person by clearly articulating the problem, explaining how it is affecting you. Attention-avoiders may respond well to offers of support. Encourage them, inspire them and help them feel motivated.
  • Dealing with Attention Seekers: It’s wise not to confront attention seekers at all. Confronting these people results in conflict, giving them exactly the attention they want. By gratifying their attention seeking, you will only promote more of the same negative behaviour. The best way to deal with attention seekers is to try non-confrontational strategies first. If these are unsuccessful, you will need to escalate the issue. See the following paragraphs for more information.

Non-Confrontational Strategies

Directly confronting a difficult person will always cause conflict. Attempt a peaceful solution first with non-confrontational strategies. Of course, if you’re forced to work side-by-side with the problem person, these strategies might prove impossible. If you have the luxury of avoiding the person and can still complete your work to a high standard, try the following:

  • Avoid being in the same room
  • Don’t directly communicate with the person
  • Be evasive; make it difficult for them to find you
  • Ignore unimportant emails from the person, or pass them on to someone else

Escalation Strategies

If non-confrontational strategies don’t work, you will need to escalate the problem. Try these more forceful strategies:

  • Confront the person face-to-face. Calmly and professionally explain the problem, making it clear how the person is making you feel and how it is affecting your work. Tell them you’d like a peaceful resolution. Let them know exactly how you expect them to rectify the problem. If you have plucked up the courage to confront the person, don’t be tempted to apologise. If you detest confrontation, you might feel compelled to apologise to restore the peace. Don’t say sorry without a reason. Instead, hold your ground and don’t doubt yourself.
  • Speak to your boss or HR representative. If the situation is particularly heated, it might be too risky to confront the person alone. In this case, enlist the support of your boss or at least one co-worker. Consider asking a third person to act as mediator when you confront the person.
  • Rally other affected co-workers. If the problem person is good friends with your boss, or you’re finding it difficult to get support from your superiors, you might need to gather support from other affected co-workers. If two or three people approach management with the same problem, you have a greater chance of being heard.
  • Ask for a transfer to another department. This is a very positive move if the option is available and if it makes you happy.
  • Quit your job. If you’re unable to find a solution, protect your own happiness. Don’t allow the difficult person’s negative behaviour impact every day of your working life. Quitting your job should be a last resort, but it may be the best way to find a positive outcome.

In Summary

When dealing with difficult people at work, it helps to remember you are in control of your own life. You have the choice to ignore the behaviour, take action or leave the situation entirely. Keep your integrity and choose to act wisely, rather than react emotionally. While you may not have control over other’s behaviour, you certainly have control over yours.

Visit our Careers Advice section for related articles.

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