October 19th, 2017
Effectively managing conflict is arguably the hardest thing a manager has to do. I was recently reminded of this by a comment from a reader in response to a post (10 Things Successful Business People Aren’t Daunted By). Her observation? “I’ll be printing this off and putting it where I can read it every morning,” she wrote. “Dealing well with conflict (instead of running and hiding) has been one of my biggest challenges as a relatively new manager, so thank you for reminding me that conquering that fear of conflict is worth it!”
Actually she shouldn’t feel bad – she has lots of company. While now and then you’ll come across a manager who enjoys conflict, really relishes confrontation and dispute, the vast majority of people would much prefer not to deal with it, if given a choice.
Unfortunately, as a manager, if you’re going to do your job, you have no choice.
In that spirit, following are a few things I learned about it:
Accept the inevitability of conflict in management – As mentioned above, just recognize that addressing it is part of the job. Don’t waste energy ruminating about it, and don’t feel bad you feel bad about it. Just accept it for what it is: It comes with the managerial territory.
Don’t be a conflict-avoider. Difficult interpersonal workplace problems won’t disappear by ignoring them; they’ll only get worse. Chronic conflict-avoiders will end up losing the respect of their employees – and their own management.
Stay calm – Even when provoked, keep a close hold on your temper; stay as calm as you possibly can. There are some memorable lines from the famous Rudyard Kipling poem If: If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/But make allowance for their doubting too… And after several verses the poem concludes: Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/And – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son. (Or a woman… Kipling wrote this in 1895.) Though it wasn’t written for business, I always felt there was management relevance in the message.
Maintain the moral high ground – A close cousin to the point directly above. You’re management. You’re the voice of reason. Don’t lose control or pull rank or cede the moral high ground – calm control is a much more advantageous position to manage and negotiate from.
Partner with HR – Though Human Resources operatives have become joking stereotypes on TV and in movies… I’ll state this in bold letters: When I was in management, my colleagues in Human Resources were of inestimable valuable to me on many occasions. I never hesitated to call on them when I faced difficult employee conflicts. They were unfailingly an objective third party, a sounding board, a valuable source of reasonable counsel. My philosophy was always, In delicate situations, get all the help you can.
Document meticulously – When serious conflict occurs, as a manager you’ll need accurate records of it. During employee performance appraisals, you’ll need clear documentation to avoid discussions dissolving into “he said/she said” disputes. And when it’s necessary to terminate someone, you of course need detailed documentation (again, a time to work closely with HR) or you may well have legal exposure.
Don’t’ think in terms of “winning,” so much as constructively resolving – No point winning the battle but losing the war. Management’s role is not to “defeat the enemy” (even though that may feel cathartic at times!), but to elicit optimal performance from the area you’re managing. Accordingly, best not to leave bodies in your wake but to get conflicts resolved fairly, expeditiously, and move forward as constructively as you can. Get closure and move ahead… the sooner, the better.
I don’t want to give the illusion any of this is easy.
It isn’t. It never is.
But if you can develop a consistent, rational approach to managing conflict, it can make your difficult job a lot less stressful than it would be without it.
As appeared on forbes.com
October 6th, 2017
Difficult people defy logic. Some are blissfully unaware of the negative impact that they have on those around them, and others seem to derive satisfaction from creating chaos and pushing other people’s buttons. Either way, they create unnecessary complexity, strife and worst of all stress.
Studies have long shown that stress can have a lasting, negative impact on the brain. Exposure to even a few days of stress compromises the effectiveness of neurons in the hippocampus — an important brain area responsible for reasoning and memory. Weeks of stress cause reversible damage to neuronal dendrites (the small “arms” that brain cells use to communicate with each other), and months of stress can permanently destroy neurons. Stress is a formidable threat to your success — when stress gets out of control, your brain and your performance suffer.
Most sources of stress at work are easy to identify. If your non-profit is working to land a grant that your organization needs to function, you’re bound to feel stress and likely know how to manage it. It’s the unexpected sources of stress that take you by surprise and harm you the most.
Recent research from the Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany found that exposure to stimuli that cause strong negative emotions — the same kind of exposure you get when dealing with difficult people — caused subjects’ brains to have a massive stress response. Whether it’s negativity, cruelty, the victim syndrome or just plain craziness, difficult people drive your brain into a stressed-out state that should be avoided at all costs.
The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. TalentSmart has conducted research with more than a million people, and we’ve found that 90 percent of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control. One of their greatest gifts is the ability to neutralize difficult people. Top performers have well-honed coping strategies that they employ to keep difficult people at bay.
While I’ve run across numerous effective strategies that smart people employ when dealing with difficult people, what follows are some of the best. To deal with difficult people effectively, you need an approach that enables you, across the board, to control what you can and eliminate what you can’t. The important thing to remember is that you are in control of far more than you realize.
Complainers and negative people are bad news because they wallow in their problems and fail to focus on solutions. They want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves. People often feel pressure to listen to complainers because they don’t want to be seen as callous or rude, but there’s a fine line between lending a sympathetic ear and getting sucked into their negative emotional spiral.
You can avoid this only by setting limits and distancing yourself when necessary. Think of it this way: if the complainer were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? You’d distance yourself, and you should do the same with complainers. A great way to set limits is to ask complainers how they intend to fix the problem. They will either quiet down or redirect the conversation in a productive direction.
Difficult people drive you crazy because their behavior is so irrational. Make no mistake about it; their behavior truly goes against reason. So why do you allow yourself to respond to them emotionally and get sucked into the mix? The more irrational and off-base someone is, the easier it should be for you to remove yourself from their traps. Quit trying to beat them at their own game. Distance yourself from them emotionally and approach your interactions like they’re a science project (or you’re their shrink, if you prefer the analogy). You don’t need to respond to the emotional chaos — only the facts.
Maintaining an emotional distance requires awareness. You can’t stop someone from pushing your buttons if you don’t recognize when it’s happening. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in situations where you’ll need to regroup and choose the best way forward. This is fine and you shouldn’t be afraid to buy yourself some time to do so.
Think of it this way — if a mentally unstable person approaches you on the street and tells you he’s John F. Kennedy, you’re unlikely to set him straight. When you find yourself with a coworker who is engaged in similarly derailed thinking, sometimes it’s best to just smile and nod. If you’re going to have to straighten them out, it’s better to give yourself some time to plan the best way to go about it.
This is the area where most people tend to sell themselves short. They feel like because they work or live with someone, they have no way to control the chaos. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Once you’ve found your way to Rise Above a person, you’ll begin to find their behavior more predictable and easier to understand. This will equip you to think rationally about when and where you have to put up with them and when you don’t. For example, even if you work with someone closely on a project team, that doesn’t mean that you need to have the same level of one-on-one interaction with them that you have with other team members.
You can establish a boundary, but you’ll have to do so consciously and proactively. If you let things happen naturally, you are bound to find yourself constantly embroiled in difficult conversations. If you set boundaries and decide when and where you’ll engage a difficult person, you can control much of the chaos. The only trick is to stick to your guns and keep boundaries in place when the person tries to encroach upon them, which they will.
Smart people know how important it is to live to fight another day, especially when your foe is a toxic individual. In conflict, unchecked emotion makes you dig your heels in and fight the kind of battle that can leave you severely damaged. When you read and respond to your emotions, you’re able to choose your battles wisely and only stand your ground when the time is right.
Where you focus your attention determines your emotional state. When you fixate on the problems you’re facing, you create and prolong negative emotions and stress. When you focus on actions to better yourself and your circumstances, you create a sense of personal efficacy that produces positive emotions and reduces stress.
When it comes to toxic people, fixating on how crazy and difficult they are gives them power over you. Quit thinking about how troubling your difficult person is, and focus instead on how you’re going to go about handling them. This makes you more effective by putting you in control, and it will reduce the amount of stress you experience when interacting with them.
Emotionally intelligent people are quick to forgive, but that doesn’t mean that they forget. Forgiveness requires letting go of what’s happened so that you can move on. It doesn’t mean you’ll give a wrongdoer another chance. Smart people are unwilling to be bogged down unnecessarily by others’ mistakes, so they let them go quickly and are assertive in protecting themselves from future harm.
Sometimes you absorb the negativity of other people. There’s nothing wrong with feeling bad about how someone is treating you, but your self-talk (the thoughts you have about your feelings) can either intensify the negativity or help you move past it. Negative self-talk is unrealistic, unnecessary and self-defeating. It sends you into a downward emotional spiral that is difficult to pull out of. You should avoid negative self-talk at all costs.
I’ve beaten this one to death over the years and can’t say enough about the importance of sleep to increasing your emotional intelligence and managing your stress levels. When you sleep, your brain literally recharges, so that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Your self-control, attention and memory are all reduced when you don’t get enough — or the right kind — of sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels on its own, even without a stressor present. A good night’s sleep makes you more positive, creative and proactive in your approach to toxic people, giving you the perspective you need to deal effectively with them.
It’s tempting, yet entirely ineffective, to attempt tackling everything by yourself. To deal with toxic people, you need to recognize the weaknesses in your approach to them. This means tapping into your support system to gain perspective on a challenging person. Everyone has someone at work and/or outside work who is on their team, rooting for them and ready to help them get the best from a difficult situation. Identify these individuals in your life and make an effort to seek their insight and assistance when you need it. Something as simple as explaining the situation can lead to a new perspective. Most of the time, other people can see a solution that you can’t because they are not as emotionally invested in the situation.
Before you get this system to work brilliantly, you’re going to have to pass some tests. Most of the time, you will find yourself tested by touchy interactions with problem people. Thankfully, the plasticity of the brain allows it to mold and change as you practice new behaviors, even when you fail. Implementing these healthy, stress-relieving techniques for dealing with difficult people will train your brain to handle stress more effectively and decrease the likelihood of ill effects.
September 29th, 2017
Understanding why some people become more difficult or negative, and when they are more likely to act that way, can prevent you from obsessing about that one difficult person to the exclusion of all the others who were quite pleasant and appreciated your work. By reflecting on your role in these difficult interactions, you will be in a better position to learn strategies to head off and/or counteract the stressful effects of these encounters with difficult clients.
Why do some people see the cup as being half empty instead of half full? The answers may lie in different areas, some related to the environment and some related to the “payoff” of using certain behaviours.
Some people learn very early on that the more noise they make, the more likely those around them will respond to their “squeaky-wheel” or “my-way-or-the-highway” approach. These are the people who enter our offices with complaints in hand and use their bodies and voices to intimidate.
Some people feel so hopeless and powerless in their life that they may develop the attitude of “what difference does it make?” These clients may be hard for us to work with, because they are often indecisive, resistant to change or have difficulty expressing their opinion.
For other clients, negative attitudes and behaviours are expressed when they are stressed out and just don’t have the energy to use better communication skills, judgment and manners.
Being stressed out is chronic in today’s society. We often have too much to do, are running behind schedule or working with incomplete information. It takes a lot of energy to be positive, to keep things in perspective and to actively look for the good in someone.
The difficulty behind these attitudes and behaviours is that they are highly “toxic.” We may be functioning just fine when we suddenly have to change gears and deal with someone else’s difficult behaviour or negative attitude. This brings us down, makes us feel grouchy and out-ofcontrol.
The next thing you know, we ourselves complain, grow stubborn and more negative or difficult. This bad attitude then ripples out to those around us, infecting them and becoming entrenched in the workplace.
Fraught with difficult people and negative attitudes, our work environment becomes a daily scene of excessive finger-pointing, backstabbing and gossiping, higher rates of absenteeism, lower productivity and decreased quality of customer service.
Can we stop negative attitudes and difficult behaviours from rearing their ugly heads in our workplace? Unfortunately, the answer is no — but we can control how we respond and desist from (inadvertently) rewarding behaviours that shouldn’t be encouraged.
The main premise to work from is that difficult people use negative behaviour to get what they want. It has worked for them before and they are counting on it to work for them again. Our goal is to stop rewarding these irritating behaviours.
To do this, we must understand what people expect to gain from being so difficult. Some want to feel more in control. Some want to feel important and listened to, and some want to avoid outright conflict, but will act out their annoyance or disagreement through other negative behaviours.
1. How can we help someone to feel more in control? Well, we need to ensure that we have clear job descriptions, are not overloaded and have realistic expectations for what we can accomplish. Staff should still be responsive to clients’ needs and concerns, rather than caught up in red tape and “by-the-book” procedures.
2. Even though it is very easy to give the impression to those we are talking to and interacting with that they are important to us, we often forget or ignore these simple strategies. We need to start with our body language. Have you ever been in a hurry and talked without looking directly at the other person? What message does that convey? Turn and face the person. Make eye contact. Be in the moment and treat each person as if they are all that matters.
3. Try and remember details about the person. Write them down and mention them the next time you’re chatting. It is hard to be difficult with someone who makes us feel special.
4. Watch how you are communicating. Bring potential or recurring problems out into the open. Are you listening to people or are you formulating your answer while they are still talking? Are you raising your voice or becoming agitated? Ask clients if there is anything you can do to improve their visit – even when you don’t want to hear their answer.
5. Give clients as much information as you can. I was recently waiting in an emergency room with my son. When the doctor arrived and began her assessment, she received an emergency page and quickly left. I was very annoyed, as my son grew restless. A nurse came by and said that the doctor had to deliver a baby and would be back shortly. That information was all that I needed to hear to make me feel better about the situation.
6. Look at the procedures that the person has to work their way through. Are you keeping them waiting, but expecting them to be on time? Make a realistic schedule, but if you are running behind, leave a message even if they may have already left for their appointment. It shows that you respect them and regret causing them any inconvenience. Can you offer them an extra service or a small token of appreciation for their patience — before they become annoyed by the delay?
7. What does your workplace environment convey? Is it comfortable, peaceful and engaging? Though the “extras” may seem unnecessary in accomplishing the business of the day, they may be just the things that clients remember. If you say you cater to families, does the environment of the office really convey that when clients with children walk in? There is nothing more stressful to a parent then to try and occupy a child in a confined space. Even being a few minutes behind schedule can upset the calmest of parents. To decrease the incidence of difficult behaviours and negative attitudes, make your workplace a visual, auditory and aromatic haven in their hectic day.
8. Get a feel for some typical reactions and attitudes that you may face and prepare yourself in advance to deal with them. Be sure not to reward difficult behaviours by giving in or backing off. For some personality types, you need to keep your composure, be assertive and know exactly what it is you want to communicate. Get comfortable with people who need to vent and express themselves – however, do not tolerate abuse.
Try using the person’s name to gain their attention when they are on a rant. Sometimes, you will get more useful information if you ask the person to write out the issue that concerns them, as there is less chance of the situation escalating into a “big production.”
9. Move difficult people away from problem identification and into problem-solving. Help them generate ways to improve the situation. When we are stressed out, we often have difficulty looking forward. However, if you hear the same complaints time and again, it may be that it is you (and not the client) who needs to move into problem-solving mode.
10. It is essential that you take care of yourself. Dealing with difficult people requires extra energy and focus. Maintain balance in your life – be sure to have other pursuits that you can count on for pleasure and distraction. Eat properly to control mood swings and to feel more energetic. Cut out caffeine, which heightens our responses and makes us more sensitive to those around us. Get plenty of sleep – probably more than what you are getting now. This too will give you the energy you need to think on your feet and provide the extra attention that some people need. Have someone to vent to – but not so often and for so long that you alienate that person. Lighten up, have fun and remember to smile. All of these positive behaviours will buffer you against the effects of dealing with tough situations.
To sum up, by understanding what people expect to gain from using undesirable behaviours, we are in a much better position to deflect and defeat the difficult behaviour and move the person from problem identification to problem-solving. We need to help people feel more in control, more important and listened to. And we need to ensure that we are taking care of ourselves and maintaining our own sense of humour and balance. By using these tips, we may be able to stop difficult behaviours and reduce the impact of negative attitudes. And if you find yourself saying that what I am recommending will never work – well then, it may be time for you to reflect upon the negative vibes that you may be sending out.