Leadership + Management | By Tom Murphy,

Managing Difficult Relationships at Work

Ever work with someone who is super sweet one minute, then jumps down your throat the next? To some of us, this might seem like a personal problem. But if it’s happening at work, it’s also a business problem.

Workplace conflict can decrease productivity, increase absenteeism, and cause good employees to leave. And the longer you allow difficult employees to stick around, the more you put employee engagement, retention, and morale at risk.

Why does this happen?

There are many reasons difficult people act the way they do. Sadly, one of the main reasons is because it works.

More than a few people have figured out how to get what they want by using tactics that make other people feel uncertain, off balance, and uneasy. When someone is feeling vulnerable, they are much more likely to bend to the will of others. Those who prefer to keep everybody walking on eggshells know this all too well.

First, they earn your trust, then they break it just enough to make you question what you did wrong. While you’re caught backpedaling, they’re slowly harnessing more and more power in the relationship.

Often, this need for power and control is fueled by intense feelings of insecurity. Individuals who live with the feeling of not being good enough often end up trying to inflict that same feeling onto others. Perhaps this makes them feel superior for a moment, or at least more equal.

Those prone to empathy may recognize this pattern for what it is, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. In fact, it may be considerably more difficult to react after realizing that the tormentor is actually the tormented.

How should you handle it?

Unfortunately, there are no magic answers here. Every scenario will be different. But here are a few hard-earned tips:

Trust yourself

If you’re getting a woozy, suspicious, or funny feeling about a potential business connection, pay attention.

Do some additional checking around. Talk to people who know or have worked with them. Conduct a social media or Google search. If you’re considering hiring this person, schedule a follow-up interview and invite some additional people to sit in who are willing to give another perspective.

Establish boundaries

If your personal and professional boundaries are clearly defined and firmly in place, you’ll have an easier time sticking to them. It may also help you react more diplomatically to unpredictable behavior.

Have a few canned responses in your pocket that you can pull out when needed: “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and “This isn’t appropriate to discuss right now,” can help put uncomfortable discussions back on track. Even something like “I’m on a deadline here,” can be a good conversation stopper. Just because someone wants to engage with you doesn’t mean you have to get sucked in.

Learn to say no and, if necessary, walk away.

Write it down

If you’re dealing with unhealthy interactions on a regular basis, start documenting dates, times, and specific events.

Whether you’re talking to HR, your BFF, or directly to your tormenter, re-telling stories from memory is going to be less effective than keeping detailed notes on each interaction. If you can get other people in the room, eyewitnesses are also helpful.

If you decide to go to HR, just realize you might not get the exact answer you are hoping for. If you’re expecting an automatic disciplinary action or a quick and easy fix, you could be in for some disappointment. These situations can be complicated and nuanced, and your HR team may or may not see things the same way you do.

If you are HR and you need to let someone go, having this documentation in place will be an important part of the process.

Cut the cord

Sometimes you have to deal with difficult people, but sometimes it’s a choice. If you’ve got a client, customer, employee, networking connection, or friend who seems like a super nice person, but sometimes makes you feel downright awful, do a quick ROI analysis:

  • How much of that time and energy could you invest in other, more positive people who are sincerely interested in your success?
  • What would that mean for your life? Your business? Your day-to-day interactions?

It’s not always easy to cut ties, but sometimes it’s the best thing for everyone.

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