Individuals who interact with people they perceive to be trouble could enhance their own career

All employees, even those who think someone else is at fault, should ask themselves if they're the problem. Picture / Getty Images

by Diana Clement It's nigh impossible to change other people. Workplaces have their share of difficult people. Whether these people use bullying behaviour at one end of the scale or are failing to engage at the other, they're a problem for the organisation, for colleagues and for themselves.

Dealing appropriately with them, which includes looking at the organisation itself, is a win-win for everyone involved.


"In every workplace you will encounter difficult people. Learning how to cope with them is the preferred approach," says Matthew Beattie, chief executive of Instep Limited.

That is unless the behaviour leads to an offensive, intimidating or hostile work environment.

The problem with difficult people in an organisation is that they hold back productivity. Therefore it's everyone's problem.

Difficult people aren't always the loud or aggressive ones. They come in a variety of flavours, under the general umbrellas of:

* Too wrapped up in their own world to consider others. They may interrupt colleagues or fail to go away even when someone is dropping lots of hints.

* "Bulldozers", who mow down anyone in their way in order to get their own way.

* Backstabbers, who are very common. Some like to bury their barbs in "jokes" at the expense of others.

* "Shell hiders". People like this are very unresponsive, which makes them difficult to work with.


* People who feel the need to put others down, usually because they are insecure themselves.

* Know-it-alls. These people think only they know the answer to an organisation's problems and will withdraw or refuse to work with other solutions.

* People who throw tantrums.

* Unreliable employees. They don't turn up on time, never keep to a schedule and can't be trusted to meet a deadline.

* Ditherers who can't make a decision. Try getting one of these to complete a project.

* The cup-half-empty brigade, who don't see the point of doing anything because it won't work anyway.

* Whiners who bemoan their bad luck. Everyone else in the organisation is at fault, not them.

However, it's not necessarily good to apply labels to people, as there are two sides to every story. "We discourage labels in the playground. Why use them in the workplace?" says Massey University's Dispute Resolution Centre director, Virginia Goldblatt.

It's also important to be aware that in most cases, both sides of a conflict see the other as being difficult, says Goldblatt. "Everybody in their own story is the princess being held in the tower by an evil witch."

Individuals who interact with people they perceive to be difficult could enhance their own career by learning about conflict management and resolution. Goldblatt recommends the book Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury, and Getting Past NO by Ury.

She also recommends books by Professor Kenneth Cloke as beneficial for people who want to go further in improving their ability to deal with difficult people.

Some employees and managers fast-track the process of learning to deal with difficult people by going through coaching.

Iain McCormick, managing director of the Executive Coaching Centre, says he deals regularly with a variety of senior staff and CEOs who are

being driven nuts by the people around them. It might be a chief executive who struggles to work with a board, or a rational senior employee struggling to deal with emotional staff or a difficult colleague who has been brought in to work beside him or her.

Among other things, McCormick coaches these executives how to let go of the struggle to change others where it isn't going to work and to focus on what they can do, not what they can't. "If you invest time in understanding what you can change and what you can't change, it is very liberating."

That doesn't mean being apathetic. Rather it involves letting go of things they can't change and deciding what it is that is important for them in the organisation.

All employees, even those who think someone or everyone else is at fault, should ask themselves if they're difficult, says Beattie. "Do you overreact? Are you too sensitive? Are you too intolerant of others?" Or do you:

* Chatter or talk on the phone, or complain incessantly?

* Gossip and broadcast your personal problems?

* Take credit for others' work? Hog the spotlight?

* Come to work sick (infectious)?

* Hold political or religious views that are intolerant of others' perspectives?

* Arrive late and leave early?

* Leave dirty dishes in the staff kitchen sink? Leave office messes for others to clean?

* Criticise, brag, reveal confidential information or violate the personal boundaries of others?

Employees who exhibit these behaviours are seen by co-workers as being difficult and could be unknowingly sabotaging their own careers.

It's nigh impossible to change other people. Instead, dealing with difficult people in an organisation involves changing your behaviour to find a way to cope with their behaviour, while staying calm yourself.

Having said that, employers can give difficult people the tools to change. "You can give the princess in the tower the rope. You have to say 'climb down by yourself'," says Goldblatt.

Management shouldn't ignore difficult workers. That can lead to all sorts of organisational problems and even employment court hearings. In 70 per cent of cases, says Goldblatt, there will be a structural or systemic component involved that relates back to the organisation.

Jason Walker, managing director New Zealand of Hays Recruiting, says: "We would advise employers to performance-manage difficult employees in the first instance by understanding and taking steps to address the issues that may be causing this particular behaviour.

"If this approach does not work and a resolution cannot be reached, then look at a replacement, but this time ensure you recruit a candidate with the right cultural fit for your business - this is where a recruiter can help."

But beware. Cases are sometimes mishandled by employers. For example, mushroom farm worker Kirsteen Bennett was dismissed in 2006 for behaviour that management saw as difficult, including throwing mushroom stalks at a fellow employee and "disruptive and disharmonious" behaviour after she had undergone training to help her understand the issue of bullying.

The case was heard by the Employment Relations Authority and Bennett received compensation for a percentage of lost wages and for emotional hurt as a result of her employer, New Zealand Mushrooms Limited, not following correct procedure over her dismissal.

The Department of Labour has useful guides on its website under the Problem Solving section, and has labour inspectors and mediators who can assist businesses in dealing with difficult employees. There is also a section on conflict on the department's website, which looks at bullying and violence.