I take a humanistic approach to this, meaning I treat them with dignity, compassion, and professionalism. I may not know why they are being difficult, but I know that me being difficult back at them isn’t going to help them or help me solve our problems.
It is very easy to write off a difficult co-worker as a problem. But that is a mistake. Not only is it not professional, it also creates tensions where there doesn’t need to be any.
I am often hired by companies who want me to help them deal with a difficult colleague. I usually know who the “difficult” person is before I go in. I almost always fine the person labelled difficult to be a nice person who is trying their best but they are very defensive and often feel like everyone is out to get them. And, honestly, they aren’t wrong. Their colleagues have decided they are difficult and treat them accordingly. This creates a vicious cycle that needs to be broken for the good of the individuals and for the organization.
On rare occasions, the difficult person really is difficult and may need to be let go. But until you treat them with dignity, compassion, and professionalism, it is a mistake to jump to that conclusion.
Everyone has dignity. However, we don’t always act with dignity. To make sure that you are not the cause of someone else’s negative behavior, be sure that YOU act with dignity. This doesn’t mean you should act aloof or like you are better than anyone else. It means that you recognize the common humanity you share with your colleagues, and you actively treat other people with dignity.
I find that when I find myself getting annoyed by a colleague, if I can take a step back away from my annoyance or hurt, and think about them, not as a bad person, but as a well-meaning person, I can often reframe the problem or conflict and re-engage with them. I am honest that whatever happened was not ok with me, but I assume, they meant no harm. This often turns what could escalate to full on conflict, into a learning and growing experience and helps me and my colleagues actually learn how to work together better. Sharing and acknowledging our common humanity with dignity, helps build trust which in turn makes all future problems, easier to resolve. They know that I am not a threat to them and so, work with me, instead of against me.
People are not always at their best. Everyone you meet is dealing with their own problems. Usually, their problems have nothing to do with you. If a colleague is not behaving … optimally. Instead of assuming there is something wrong with them, consider thinking of them compassionately. Maybe something is not wrong with them, but rather, they are dealing with something that is wrong in their life that you know nothing about.
When you think of your colleagues with compassion, it means you think of them as full human beings with full lives that may include children, sick parents, or other issues outside of the workplace that are impacting their mental health. It helps no one to treat someone who is dealing with difficulties in their life, as if THEY are a problem. When you make space for the fallible human, you take the pressure off of them to be perfect in every way. No one is perfect in every way. If someone is going through a hard time, the compassionate response is to support them through it.
I realize this can lead to compassion fatigue. There are people who thrive on problems. Everything has drama. It is very hard to be sympathetic to someone who constantly has crisis in their lives. But treating them with compassion doesn’t mean you have to indulge every single problem. It means accepting them as who they are and not demanding that they be someone else for you. Some people truly have a run of bad luck. Others just – like the attention they get from being in constant crisis. Either way, treat them with compassion and don’t add to their problems.
I had a friend who was constantly in crisis. Whenever she would start talking to me about the latest, I would nod and say, that’s horrible and then I would re-direct to the work that needed to be done. I was never mean to her. I didn’t demean her for her problems. I treated her with dignity and compassion and that was enough to redirect to actual work.
If other people in the workplace have drama going on, there is no rule that says I have to take part in their drama. I don’t have to take sides. I can simply refocus on the work while treating everyone with dignity and compassion. If someone is incapable of doing their work, that is their problem. If they are actively or inadvertently preventing work from being done, I document my conversations with them and try to create clarity. I ask what support they need to get their part of it done. And then I work towards helping to make sure they have what they need.
Being professional is about how you decide to act. If others act unprofessionally, that is about them. You, are professional if you behave professionally. If you think about people you think of as being professional, it’s not that they are famous, or uptight. It means that when a problem occurs, they respond to that problem with dignity and compassion and then start working through the problem treating everyone, including people who are very very very difficult, with dignity and compassion.
An example of dignity, compassion and professionalism in action:
My favorite example of this was a car rental clerk I once watched deal with a man yelling at him. The man had had to rent a car for over a month while his car was – apparently NOT getting fixed by a repair shop. His real anger was at the repair shop, but he was taking his anger out on the car rental clerk. The rental clerk was filling out the paperwork to renew the car rental while this customer yelled at him that this paperwork was even necessary.
At no point did the clerk yell back, he just listened and did his work. When he needed the angry man to sign something, he asked him to sign it and allowed the man to continue ranting. He would occasionally tell the man – I’m sorry, but I need you to sign this. I have never witnessed someone under that much stress handle something with that much dignity and compassion before and it was truly inspiring. When it was all over and it was my turn, I congratulated the clerk on how he handled the situation. His response? Well, the guy was going through a tough time and the best thing I could do for him was to help him – re-rent the car he needed. It was as simple as that. THIS is what professionalism is. Responding to difficult people with dignity, and compassion and getting the job done despite it all.