Dealing with difficult people at work is at the top of every complaint list from every office in every country on the planet. Guess that means it is an international problem.
Last week in a seminar in San Francisco I was talking about the fact that work is not a rehab facility and two people stopped my talk by applauding hard and loud. So, I stopped what I was going to say and asked why they had such enthusiasm.
The bolder of the two (there were several hundred people in the audience) said "because I am so sick and tired of making excuses for some of the jerks I have to work with. They should go to rehab and leave us alone".
I took a breath wondering what would happen next. The quieter one then said, "Yes, we need to figure out how to test people for the nastiness gene."
I took a left turn from my prepared program to give the employees of this much respected organization a chance to ask questions and vent some of their frustrations.
By the time the presentation was over there was an agreement amongst most of those present; there has to be a better way to deal with difficult people beyond just pointing fingers at them.
In fact, many in the audience were willing to look at their own part in creating a difficult situation rather than merely staying out of harm's way and blaming others.
We had made progress. There was a shift to thinking about "difficult situations" instead of "difficult people". Rather than lurching from upset to upset and applying Band-Aid solutions that did not change or improve anything there was a willingness to look at how a system operates. Systems' thinking offers a path to real change in the form of a deep, cohesive, and comprehensive interpretation of problem relationships.
Patterns of behavior become the focus of attention instead of the blaming of individuals. Systemic solutions will ultimately save organizations from the wasted energy of lawsuits, disengaged employees, and excessive time spent putting out fires in the gossip mill.
The first question to answer is why is conflict and upset with "difficult" people almost universal in workplaces? Next is why conflict seems to arise almost immediately in work relationships, even before colleagues really have a chance to get to know each other? Then why is there such a propensity for conflict to fester and worsen rather than just burn itself out on its own? And finally why do most HR interventions fail to reduce the level of conflict at work?
Here is a systemic way of looking at why we get so annoyed with difficult people and usually never even see that others may be pointing our way as one of "those types".
1. Conflict and finger pointing runs rampant in the workplace because of our natural and universal tendency to bring ingrained patterns from our childhood with us to work.
2. Because of the roles we played as kids we come into new situations at work with expectations of how the others we work with are going to behave.
3. Unless the workplace system is changed we get into a familiar rut of rote responding and "I told you so" reactions.
4. The tendency is to single out a "difficult" person and target them as "the problem."
To reduce conflict and increase productivity companies need to become "systems prepared". This requires some new thinking so that folks like those at my seminar who want others tested for the nastiness gene begin to see they are also part of the problem.
Organizations that come to grips with the emotional side of work are in a position to help teams look at the dissatisfactions and tensions as everyone's responsibility. Employees are encouraged to speak out openly about their upset and encouraged to talk about how they see themselves participating rather than merely look at the other person as the culprit.
This helps individuals become more thoughtful and more inventive in creating a work environment where gossip and office politics have little chance to survive.