News Column

Dealing With Difficult People: The New Diversity In Tough Times?

June 9, 2009

Ivonne Chirino-Klevans, Ph.D., Program Director, International Programs, Walden University, for

workplace management, difficult people

Periods of high unemployment can hit different organizations in different ways, but a consistent factor is the individual insecurity that comes with the fear of job loss. Often these difficult times mean doing more with less as individuals take on duties from jobs that have been eliminated. Sometimes it can even mean facing a challenging organizational environment; employees may reason that in these times having a job is better than having no job.

Managers might ask themselves whether it's permissible to use any leadership style to get the job done, knowing that job insecurity means employees will tolerate unhealthy organizational environments. It might even seem that more "difficult" managers appear in the workplace.

In such times, should we accept and learn to work with difficult people because such characteristics may be part of who they are and thus considered diversity traits? What is inarguable is that organizations include people with different personalities who have their own ways to approach problems. The key to working with difficult people is to learn how to effectively coexist. Following are some archetypes of "difficult people" found in conflict mediation research, and some strategies on how to deal with them.

The Know-It-All

These individuals have a strong need for recognition. They are usually well informed, and look for arguments to support their assertions. They have a need for security in an uncertain world, will look for evidence and facts to bolster their position, and value logic and knowledge. They will confront those who question their assertions, and will usually find data to support their statements. Sometimes those who argue with a know-it-all will leave the discussion feeling as though they did, in fact, not know enough.

What you can do
-- Do not challenge their assumptions unless you have researched to support your point. Be ready with arguments that are not challenging but that help the person consider an alternative point of view when it is based on evidence.
-- Try to paraphrase what they say to acknowledge their expertise.
-- If you have a different point of view, invite them to reflect on how things might look if they changed their own perspective. Be aware, however, that it is difficult to persuade people with these tendencies that anyone knows more than they do.

The "Yes-Person"

These individuals tend to avoid conflict and sometimes overcommit, promising more than they can deliver. They like to say what they think their audience wants to hear, and sometimes set unrealistic goals to avoid losing face.

What you can do
-- Let them know you accept people for who they are. Once that is established, "yes-people" are likely to feel more comfortable setting realistic goals.
-- Send the message that you value them for the skills they bring to the workplace. Create an environment where different opinions are welcome and not judged.

The Complainer

Complainers avoid taking responsibility and find fault in many things. They may have valid criticisms, but they will overemphasize them without taking specific action or suggesting solutions.

What you can do
-- Help them take responsibility for finding solutions; ask them to write down complaints with a specific alternative to solve the problem.
-- Ask them to be specific about the problem they complain about. Sometimes all they need is someone who actually listens to them.
-- Do not agree with their critique; that will fuel their complaints. Instead ask what outcome they would like to see from the conversation.
-- Identify a deadline to talk about the issue and find a solution. After that, make an agreement not to discuss the issue anymore.

The Bully

Bullies have a compelling need to be right, and can be abusive and intimidating while trying to affirm themselves. They may seem arrogant because they value assertiveness. They have a difficult time working with people who are not assertive.

What you can do
-- Be assertive but not aggressive, since verbal disagreements with bullies tend to escalate. Express your point of view with a strong rationale to back it up.
-- Avoid an environment where the bully may have a "home court" advantage, such as in his or her office. Choose a neutral space to have important conversations.
-- Do not discuss issues if the bully is standing and you are sitting. This situation puts the person standing in a "superior" physical position.
-- Be ready to change the mood to a less assertive tone when the bully shows respect for your opinions.

Some or all of these definitions might seem familiar; some people may recognize such colleagues from an era well before the tight job market. Knowing how to successfully handle such colleagues, however, can help make the workplace less stressful in these challenging times.

Dr. Ivonne Chirino-Klevans joined Walden University in 2005 as a professor of organizational psychology and currently serves as Program Director for the Center for International Programs. The International Management Certificate is a post-bachelor business certificate designed to give business professionals in Latin America international business acumen and English language skills.

Her extensive experience includes years of working with Fortune 500 companies in designing training and development programs and serving as Program Director for Duke Corporate Education.

Dr. Chirino-Klevans received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Universidad Iberoamericana, and also holds an MBA from Universidad de las Americas, and a Masters in Psychology from Georgia College and State University. Earlier in her career, she also served as the psychologist for the Mexican national rowing team, and contributed to the team winning a silver medal at the 1991 Pan Am Games. She herself is a Pan American games medalist in gymnastics.

Source: (c) 2009. All rights reserved.

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