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Working with the office problem people


Tips and strategies for dealing with difficult behaviors in any workplace setting

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

Even if you work alone in your pajamas all day, chances are you’ve encountered a difficult person. Maybe it’s you.

 Whiners, gossipers, bullies and other cubicle creatures come with the territory – there’s just no avoiding them. They can make you want to run yourself over with your own ergonomic desk chair or stick your head in the copier.

“Dealing with difficult behaviors is a huge piece of managing and leading,” said Judy Ruhl, management development consultant and trainer with Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton. “Sometimes a leader’s toughest job is dealing with a difficult boss, coworker or even a customer.”

Types of difficult people include but are by no means limited to: the know-it-alls, the think-they-know-it-alls, the snipers, the ‘yes’ people, the ‘no’ people, the chronic complainers, and those resistant to change. You might know them simply as jerks, divas, weenies, nitwits and lazy idle drifters.

But there’s a secret key to dealing with all these people in the workplace.

“Nine times out of 10, it comes down to communication,” said Shawna Kuether, deputy director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. “What I’ve found is there really are two sides to every story.”

Maybe an employee didn’t understand or wasn’t clear that a project needed to be finished by a certain time. Maybe they thought there’d be flexibility in the deadline. Maybe the supervisor didn’t make clear that her own deadlines or goals were dependent upon the employee’s meeting theirs.

“Sometimes it’s about getting the employee to understand the manager’s perspective on things,” Kuether said. “Sometimes all it takes is having that conversation and doing it in a respectful way.”

Gimme five

The trifecta of troublers Ruhl most commonly sees in her work with area companies includes the chronic complainers, the think-they-know-it-alls and the resistant to changers. She says a big part of workplace harmony is understanding people and how they approach things. Get inside the person’s head, in other words.

“I try to push people to come up with at least five reasons why (difficult people) are acting that way and a lot of times people just say ‘Well, they’re just a jerk.’”

But it’s more than that, said Ruhl. Sometimes the organization has rewarded the person’s behavior.

“Sometimes the previous management has created a situation in which they behave that way,” she said. “The person could have low self-esteem, or their parents communicated that way. Or they’ve never developed the skills or gotten the training to be able to communicate in a different way, which is part of what’s making them difficult.”

Figure out the reason for the behavior, and you’re in a better position to come up with more effective strategies to work with them, Ruhl said.

She cautions leaders to be frugal with the energy they expend on dealing with difficult behaviors.

“When we’re dealing with difficult people, we tend to give them all of our energy,” she said.

To illustrate energy-rationing in her training sessions, she likens energy with pie – yes, as in apple and banana cream. A paper pie stands in for the edible kind, and every interpersonal interaction costs varying sizes of pieces of the paper pie.

“Where we spend our pie – where we spend our energy – is what we value, and if we’re spending all of our energy dealing with difficult people, we’re missing some opportunities in terms of the people who are important to us and are not being difficult,” she said.

There’s just one rule: “You only get one pie per day.”

Jerks are people, too

Everyone’s different, including office oafs. There’s a big difference between a know-it-all and a thinks-they-know-it-all, Ruhl said. A know-it-all really does know it all, but their poor communication style makes them difficult. A thinks-they-know-it-all wants attention. They should be approached differently.

“I want to give (the thinks-they-know-it-alls) attention when they’re talking about something they do know about but not derail from the key issues that we’re discussing,” she said.

With the chronic complainer, try to get them to solve the problem, Ruhl advised. “Your secondary goal if they’re not willing to be part of the solution is to get them to go away.”

They can suck a lot of your energy by focusing on what’s wrong rather than on being part of the solution.

“You want to ask them, ‘When is it happening, where is it happening?’ Let’s put together some data,” Ruhl said. “Some are willing to be part of the solution, but some just want to complain.”

In the case of people who just want to complain and not solve anything, recognize that you don’t have time for it. “I’ve got other things I need to be focusing on, and other people that I’d rather put (my) energy into.”

When it comes to the negative employee or one who opposes change, she says to look into the person’s past.

“Sometimes the negative person has found in their past history they’ve been turned down so often that they’re not optimistic about it,” Ruhl said. “Sometimes the resistance to change has to do with our age and personality types …. Have they not felt listened to in the past, are you giving them lip service? A lot of times we’ve got to look at our own behavior that may have created some of this.”


Another word comes up in conversation when talking about workplace issues.

“If we all had a little more respect, we would probably have a lot fewer difficult people and difficult conversations,” said Paula Stettbacher, human resources director for Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac.

And why don’t people respect each other? It boils down to poor communication.

“We tend not to be very good listeners, we speak more than we listen, and if we think we’re good listeners, we don’t always listen to what’s unsaid,” Stettbacher said. “We don’t always clarify or reflect upon what’s being said, so that gets us into some trouble, too.”

In our world of distractions, it’s hard to concentrate on what’s being said and allow for silence and an atmosphere of unhurried conversation, she said.

“When we’re not really listening, we miss stuff, and when we miss stuff, we make the rest up,” Stettbacher said. “And then we’re judging people and labeling them as difficult to work with.”

It’s important to remember that interactions go two ways. “I can’t change the other person, so how can I change my approach? What part can I do differently or better, what part of that can I own?” she said. “Once you get people to see that they have ownership in that – that it is two ways – then maybe I could do a better job of listening. Maybe I prejudge the message. We start to see that ‘A-ha, maybe it’s not just them. Maybe I play a piece in that as well,’ and hopefully that helps people take a step back, pause, reflect and then learn how to have respectful conversations.”

Stettbacher said people invent fiction to fill in what they don’t know, and that leads to workplace woes. “If I sent you an email and you don’t respond, then (you’re) mad at me and it must mean (the answer is) ‘no.’ We assume the worst, we never assume good intent,” she said.

The truth might be that you have a billion emails and simply haven’t seen hers yet. Stettbacher said we don’t think ‘let me just send her a quick reminder’ or ‘maybe I should reword that email to let her know I need this higher up on the to-do list.’

“We just make a lot of assumptions,” Stettbacher said. “We tell ourselves stories in our heads and that kind of drives us into our behaviors.”

To stave off misunderstandings, Stettbacher asks questions about what communication style people prefer, what are their hot buttons, how will they give feedback and if they disagree with her how they’ll let her know.

“We a lot of times fail to have these conversations because we make assumptions or we just don’t get to that level of detail,” Stettbacher said. “If people aren’t living up to what they said they were going to do, I let them know we had this conversation and this is what was agreed to, and let’s re-look at it in case that’s changed.”

What’s not said

People often forget that unspoken cues affect their interactions, Stettbacher remarked.

“Sometimes it’s really easy for us to point out a quality error because it’s quantitative and objective, but non-verbal communication is 93 percent of the way we communicate,” Stettbacher said. “I can come into a meeting late, slam the door, walk over to my chair, throw my paper on the table, let out a big sigh, plop myself in the chair, fold my arms and I’ve not said one word, but I’ve spoken volumes about myself and the mood I’m in.”

Getting too close to someone – invading personal space – can put people on the defensive. Certain facial expressions can alienate. Foot-tapping, fingernail drumming, looking bored and lack of eye contact deliver messages we may not be aware we’re broadcasting.

“I’ve talked to people about eye rolling, for example,” Stettbacher said. “They aren’t even aware they’re doing it. Sometimes you just need to have the conversation and heighten their awareness and figure out a system to let them know they’re doing that again.”

She gave the example of one system that worked for a busy customer-service oriented company at which she once worked: Those whose attitudes seemed a bit sour got lemon drops placed in front of them. It might seem quirky, but every department is different, so solutions should be different, too.

“People have to figure out what are we going to agree to, how are we going to give one another that feedback,” she said. “The key is finding something that everybody can agree to and commit to, because if we don’t agree to it, it’s not going to get better.”

Nobody rolls out of bed and thinks, “How can I cause trouble today?”

“Everybody just wants to come work and have fun, right? We’re here and we might as well enjoy it, so let’s figure out how we’re going to do it and do it,” Stettbacher said. “Hopefully it lasts over time and really does become a great place to work.”

Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.