Sticky Situations 101: Time to Level Up
Wouldn't it be great if we could all just get along? Why is there always at least one person determined to cause trouble and strife at work? More importantly, is there a way to shut down or work around this unsavory behavior?
I tell my friends and colleagues pretty regularly that, "people will surprise you," and for the most part, my sentiment is positive. Unfortunately, some of those surprises are unpleasant. Most of us have worked with someone who isn't a very nice person... or maybe you are currently working with someone who treats you and everyone else poorly. I'm going to share some strategies for dealing with these situations.
Seek to understand.
When people act out at work, it is usually because they feel threatened by something or someone. When someone is difficult to work with or unpleasant to be around, it is helpful to understand what is driving their behavior.
Simply put, what is the thing that is threatening them? It's usually one of a few culprits. When we aren't prepared for a change (a new person on the team or a new policy), many of us tend to make assumptions as to how it will affect us individually. Common assumptions are usually connected to questions that sound like these:
- Will I lose my job?
- Am I still needed and valued here?
- Is the new person better at this work than I am?
- Will this person take over my work/projects/team/role?
- Will I be expected to work differently from what I am accustomed to right now?
The better you understand the source of the threat, the easier it will be to overcome the behavior.
Reflect on your own actions.
No need to launch a victim shaming episode here. We are all prone to bad days, miscommunications, misunderstandings, and generalized sensitivity. Is there a chance you could have taken something wrong? If no, move forward.
Provide feedback. Right then.
Stand up for yourself and say something. Yes, it is uncomfortable. I know it is and I still stand by this advice. If someone is disrespectful to you, making a neutral assertion in the exact moment that it happens carries the perfect amount of discomfort to make this person think twice about doing it again. For instance, someone asks a clarifying question in a meeting and someone else says, "Ugh, do we really need to cover this...again??" Respond by saying something like, "Comments like that have a tendency to shut down dialogue. Let's agree to avoid doing that to one another."
Pro-tip: This approach works best with an alliance. An alliance is someone who will attend the same meeting as you and will have your back, in the event something happens. Similarly, you would also have their back. Alliances can also be used to help promote and socialize a new idea or suggestion. For example, you present an idea during a meeting. Your alliance speaks up and bolsters the idea, which gains the attention of others in attendance. If you utilize an alliance, be sure and do so strategically, as it can backfire with overuse.
If you absolutely do not want to address the behavior in the moment, then immediately discuss it with the person afterward. For example, "Kathy, you seemed really defensive and put off by the recent department announcement. It was so unlike you that I wanted to swing by and see how you're feeling."
Don't be afraid to ask colleagues to help you with this situation. If you believe it will do more harm than good for you to address the behavior(s) with someone, then consider who the other person listens to and respects. Then, pull that person into the situation and ask for their guidance or help. Explain to them why you reached out for their assistance, specifically, and present a possible plan of action.
A brief word of caution here... Don't go to someone for help without some type of plan. You don't want to give the impression that you are dumping a problem on them. They are helping you, not taking over for you.
Lastly, if you're wondering why you should even bother confronting these situations, here's my pitch:
People with strong interpersonal skills literally make the BEST candidates for new roles. So, let's say you're miserable at your current job. Why not work on honing your interpersonal skills with that group of people?! I'm just saying - if you're working somewhere and not getting anything out of that job, create your own opportunities for development. LMK how it goes for you.