Managing Director Festo Training and Consulting
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How to deal with difficult people

3rd Jun 2015
Managing Director Festo Training and Consulting
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They're everywhere, but they don't have to be viewed with such trepidation, writes Gary Wyles.

We’ve all had this – the sinking feeling in the pit of our stomach knowing that we have to confront poor behaviour by difficult employees. And it’s even worse for HR and training departments. Many managers think that issues such as these should be ‘outsourced’ to those responsible for people development.

This is mainly down to a manager’s lack of skills and experience in handling difficult people and tricky situations. But it is exactly the manager that needs to assume responsibility. Of course, there are situations which are frankly untenable and a more rigorous organisational decision might have to be made, but this is only when the issue has escalated and other interventions have proved fruitless.

In the first instance, it is the manager’s responsibility. For training departments, it is about guiding managers and supporting them to develop their own people management skills.

Take a step back

The first step forward is actually taking a step back. The manager will need to be able to dispassionately analyse the situation. Coming from an engineering background, we like formulas and this one is particularly effective.

Behaviour = f (Personality; Environment)

Differences in personalities can be a source of friction and tension. A useful personality assessment tool such as DISC helps to identify the underlying personality traits that influence behaviour. For example, a manager who exhibits strong Influential characteristics might find someone in the Conscientious segment highly frustrating, as they cannot grasp a concept and continuously require data and information to analyse decisions. Simply being aware of someone’s personality characteristics can remove, or at least soften, tension and enable a manager to have a more pragmatic approach to working harmoniously together.

While people’s personality is relatively fixed, a change in environment can be a critical factor in the change of behaviour. Assessing the current situation through the lens of environment is particularly effective. Of course, there might be personal circumstances at play that affect behaviour at work. Often, there is a change in the workplace environment that has led to deterioration in attitude and performance.

For example, there might be a change management project in progress that the employee doesn’t agree with or understand. It could be that a new team hasn’t yet gelled making the individual feel insecure. They could be feeling insufficient in coping with new tasks and responsibilities.

Look inwards

What is sometimes most difficult for managers to understand is that it is usually their behaviour and attitude that needs to adapt and change first. The Betari Box model demonstrates how an individual’s attitude affects their behaviour and that this is transmitted through the team. A manager needs to have a high degree of self-awareness to understand his or her own personality and reactions that might trigger poor behaviour in others.

Going back to the previous point, understanding how personality influences attitude and behaviour, as well as a change in environment, can be enough to break this cycle.

Courageous conversations

This analysis needs to be conducted quickly as poor behaviour can fester and infect other people. However, most of us will tend to avoid having difficult conversations. This is partly an avoidance strategy, as we would rather just wish the problem went away and things got back to normal.

Approaching the situation with this attitude will not engender trust or loyalty. A manager needs to be firmly committed to helping their employee. If you firmly have your people’s best interests at heart, you’ve already got one aligned goal.

Coaching culture

There is skill required to handle and change the behaviour and attitudes of employees. Having a coaching culture in place can greatly enhance a manager’s ability to have courageous conversations with their team.

Not only will a manager have the time to reflect on his or her own behaviour, coaching establishes a one-to-one relationship that is built on trust and respect. If employees feel respected, supported and valued they are more prepared to change their own behaviour.

It is often the case that individuals are aware of their own attitudes and behaviours; they might just need a safe and secure place to vent their anger and frustration without the fear of recrimination. Knowing that coaching conversations are private and confidential enables the manager and their team member to reach a decision that is right for the company and of benefit to the individual.

Speak to the problem

Courage is certainly needed in these conversations. Often managers will have to confront an individual with the stark reality of the situation. They will need to be fully aware of the relevant policies and procedures as well as being skilled in these discussions. If handled badly, it can result in a poor outcome, greater cost and, worst of all, an adverse affect on others.

If they have managed to take a step back and to analyse the situation dispassionately they will be more able to skilfully navigate this conversation. They can focus on addressing the problem, rather than criticising the individual.

The importance of follow-up

It is unlikely, if not impossible, that a single conversation will have a miraculous affect on behaviour in the long-term. A manager will need to establish a mutually agreed course of action. What are we going to do about this? What do I need to do to help make the changes required? What do you need to do? When will these be done by? When shall we reconvene to discuss progress? They will need to ensure that they do their part and that their employee delivers on their promises.

If a manager demonstrates that they are willing to work together with an employee, trust and respect will follow. These are fundamental aspects for changing behaviour and establishing a new and better way of working together.

There’s an old saying, “To change the world you have to change yourself.” Never has this been more true than when dealing with difficult people.  

Gary Wyles is managing director of Festo Training & Consulting

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