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A survival guide for working with humans: Dealing with whiners, back-stabbers, know-it-alls, and other difficult people

Book cover

by Gini Graham Scott, AMACOM American Management Association, 2004

Abstract

A book about the “perils of the workplace” – dealing with difficult co-workers and bosses – and what to do about them. It offers guidelines for manoeuvring through today’s unpredictable work environment and strategies for dealing with everyday experiences at work and in business relationships.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in September 2007)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

Introduction

The relationships you have with your co-workers can determine not just how pleasant your working life is, but also your ability to get your job done. They can also impact on your long-term career success. This book presents “real-life” strategies for engaging even the most difficult people and includes interactive quizzes, true-to-life problems and conflict scenarios, and profiles of common personality types. It covers a whole host of situations from when to speak up (and how), to “gracefully navigating” through uncomfortable but necessary confrontations.

Gini Graham Scott is a consultant on communications and the author of an impressive total of 35 books. This particular book is based on a popular column she writes for a San Francisco newspaper about the perils of the workplace and what to do about them.

Life in today’s workplace, she says, is more difficult and uncertain than ever. We need some guidelines for manoeuvring through our unpredictable work environment, which is “like learning to swim through a narrow chasm in a swirling river”. To this end, she offers a series of “recipes” for a better way of dealing with everyday experiences at work and in business relationships.

Each chapter (or recipe) includes an introductory paragraph describing the problem, a short story or stories about people who faced this problem, a quiz with a list of possible responses so you can think about what you might do in the situation, a discussion about what people did to resolve their problems successfully or what they might do, and a series of three or more “take-aways” to highlight the learning from the chapter. The author hopes her “short, snappy conversational style” makes the book fun and quick to read.

There are some 34 recipes in all covering five general areas: human beings as an aggressive species, humans as political animals, ethical dilemmas, people who ask too much, and capturing and keeping the job. A penultimate chapter on “mastering your survival skills” brings it all together, while the final chapter consists of a self-assessment quiz for assessing your “survival quotient”. We’ll take a brief look at a sample of the advice here so you can see whether the topics concern any work situations you face or might face in future and where the book might help you think through the best course of action.

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An aggressive species

In the first part of the book, the author provides advice on dealing with aggression in the workplace. Here she introduces us to (among others): the employee who feels insulted by a PR consultant and wants desperately to hit back; the advertising account manager who is anxious he will lose an important account when the client’s supersensitive product manager keeps exploding at him for no apparent reason; and the manager who sues a supplier for losses incurred through poor service only to have the supplier tell lies in court about her honesty and integrity.

When revenge is not so sweet. The author’s first recipe is a warning against seeking revenge on a boss or co-worker who wrongs you. Revenge is not always so sweet, she warns, and can come back and burn you badly. Wait until your anger has subsided so you can better think through your options and what’s best to do. Call the person and have a one-to-one “heart-to-heart” discussion in which you dispassionately describe what happened and how you felt, with a view to improving your relationship in future. (It probably works with a peer or subordinate but if it’s your boss, unless they are open to this kind of discussion, you may just have to let it go.)

Watch out for the eggshells or how to deal with sensitive people. If you can’t avoid them, handle the “eggs” gently. If you break the eggs, “make an omelette”: find a way to smooth things over and repair the relationship by building up the person’s self-esteem.

Don’t fight, find out. If you’re fighting about facts, perhaps you and others don’t really know what the facts really are. Don’t just imagine or assume what the facts must be, find out when you don’t know or are unsure. Sometimes firmly held opinions are inversely related to what people really know; reverse the situation by providing them with facts.

When to turn down the volume, or find someone else to do it. Some workplace feuds bubble along under the surface and are often ignored in the interest of keeping the peace. An unspoken feud can sometimes explode and spread to others. Resolving such conflicts can be difficult because the covert and indirect behaviour involved is like the low-volume static on a radio. If you don’t take action, the volume will get louder and louder and will interfere with working relationships. If you sense that someone is acting covertly against you, get rid of the static by bringing things out in the open and clearing the channel. To turn down the volume, it is sometimes better to have someone else help you do it (such as a colleague who knows you both).

When a problem spirals out of control. Feuds can sometimes turn into vendettas. If you’re dealing with a “fired-up” employee and a potentially out-of-control situation, the first step is to put out the fire. When others are raging, think of ways of engaging. Use sweet talk and words of support and reconciliation to smooth over the relationship. Stay away from accusations and threats that might fan the flames. Don’t threaten legal action as this could provoke even more fight from an already enraged person.

Prepare for the worst-case scenario. When you least expect it, the unexpected will happen; so prepare for the unexpected with contingency plans. When situations change, so can people; be prepared for them to change their attitudes and actions when they are placed in different situations and play different roles. Just because you know things happened a certain way, doesn’t mean that others know that or want it to be that way. Be prepared for others to tell a different story, whether they believe it or not, or just want others to believe their point of view. Don’t expect people always to tell the truth (even in court), especially if there is an incentive to lie.

When nothing is the best solution. When you aren’t sure what to do, the best strategy may simply be to wait, give it minimal attention, and see if it will end on its own.

Keep it clear. Communication breakdowns are at the heart of many conflicts and “foul-ups”. If something isn’t clear one way, try using other channels of communication to reinforce what you want to say. Don’t just say it; find ways to write it and show it too (the story here concerns an arrogant team member who refuses to admit mistakes). Combine a little compassion with clarity to help the clarity go down – like sugar-coating a pill to make it easier to swallow.

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Political animals

The author reminds us that every workplace is political. You have to be aware of political realties, including who has more power, workplace alliances, and the art of compromise. In this section we meet, for example: the office worker who is angry that his boss is favouring the son of a close friend despite his mistakes; the employee who is unsure how to respond to unearned praise; and the junior market researcher blamed for not being a team player when he questioned the flaws in a research programme designed by a consultant.

Choosing your battles. Timing is critical for success when deciding which battles are worth fighting. Before entering a workplace battle, consider who has the power and whether you have the power to win. Watch and wait until the time is right. Sometimes the best way to fight and win a battle is not to fight at all.

Watch out for confidences. Being someone’s confidant can be flattering but can backfire on you. If you share confidences with someone, they may use them against you should you ever get into a work dispute. Watch out for people who leave a trail of conflicts with other people. If you do share confidences you later regret, seek an agreement to hold any confidences in secret so you don’t have make war with someone who violates your confidence.

When you’re not in the family. Working in a family firm when you are not a family member can make things more difficult for you, especially if an incumbent family member is incompetent but tolerated. Try to understand why the family is sticking up for the person. If you help them, perhaps the family will help you too. Be solutions-oriented and find ways to be supportive.

Dealing with unearned praise. If someone is giving you praise you don’t think you deserve, there may be a hidden cost. Seek a reality check about perceptions, expectations and job requirements, perhaps via feedback from an independent party.

The blame game. Those with more power often look for those with less power to blame when things go wrong. Sometimes the project design doesn’t work well but nobody wants to admit they created the design. Before you place blame on someone for doing something wrong, consider why they are doing it wrong. If they have trouble fitting in with a project, the problem may be with the project, not the person. Perhaps there is something wrong with the way you are giving instructions.

Besting the betrayer. What do you do when someone you have trusted with information uses it to advance his or her own career? You might give them a chance to explain, though you might not necessarily believe them. Even if you seek to repair the relationship, don’t give them another chance at the “cookie jar”; close it tight and move on.

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Ethical dilemmas

When the author turns to ethical questions, she gets into some tricky waters and some of the advice here will need careful consideration. The stories include: the business partners whose differences about fees and everyday business practices such as commission levels and referral charges turned into a conflict about ethics; the researcher gathering information on potential leads for investors who found confidential information about venture capitalists and their investment interests on the Web; and the small company owner who was defrauded by an employee.

Don’t let them “ethics” you. Being ethical is something to strive for – acting ethically means you show honourable character and other people will trust you. But sometimes people define ethics very broadly to include any behaviour they think is wrong so they can claim the moral high ground in a situation that is not really an ethical issue. It can sometimes be used as a club to force you to do what someone else wants. If someone in this situation tries to “ethics” you, don’t fight back with “ethics”; you will end up in an ethics match in which you both may lose.

When rules are changed. If previously agreed rules are changed without people’s agreement, tensions and resentment can build up. Before you change the rules, think how someone else will feel about it. They need to understand and agree to the rule changes.

Finders keepers – or not? What should you do when you find some information you shouldn’t know about at work, but it could give you a big advantage if you use it? There are no absolutes here (according to the author): “there are just wars when it comes to work and business issues”. There’s a difference between what’s legal and what’s ethical. While ethical ideals may come into play, it sometimes pays to do the legal and practical thing. Sometimes what is right to do is what’s ideally right. In other cases, what’s right to do is what’s practical, because the world of work and business is sometimes like a battlefield (says the author); “you have to think like a general” and ask yourself whether you want to be right or successful. (The researcher above who found the confidential information on the Web went ahead and used it; but, though it was not illegal to do so, he was never quite sure whether it was the right thing to do.)

Fraud happens. We like to trust and act in a spirit of goodwill towards other people but sometimes that makes it easy for a con artist to take advantage of us. Before you can fully trust people, you have to know who they are and what they are all about and that takes time. Don’t rush the trust process and give too much of yourself too quickly. Before you trust someone with your business, make sure they deserve your trust. Check them out before you start writing cheques.

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People who ask too much

We’ve all probably experienced some of the situations in this section at one time or another. The examples here include: the team member who experienced continual communication breakdowns with his team leader; the PR adviser whose client, a close friend, became more and more demanding and critical; and the consultant increasingly resentful of the colleague who repeatedly tried to pass responsibility for solving problems to him. We also meet the training manager who has become too dependent on a colleague’s help.

The great communicator – not! Sometimes people who think they are great communicators are not. And they may not get the message when you try to tell them they are not. You need to press for clear communications – by, for example, sending a memo or an email writing up your understanding of what you are supposed to do. Break down a broad description of a task into the particular steps you plan to do. Invite them to tell you what isn’t right so it is clear who is wrong when things don’t turn out right.

The demanding client (or boss). Don’t get stuck too long when the relationship is sinking. If the relationship is leaky, bail out. You have to experience some financial or “psychic” cost but in the long run the act of disconnecting is worth it.

The give-and-take paradox. This happens when someone asks you to use your professional skill to help them out; the problem is in distinguishing whether you should do it as a favour or as a service for which they should pay. If you don’t want to give away a product or service to personal contacts who asks for it, don’t feel guilty for saying no. Find a comfortable and diplomatic way to say this to keep your work and social worlds distinct.

When nothing seems to work, it’s time to go legal. Sometimes, in hostile working environments or situations of harassment, you may not be able to work out problems through non-legal methods. Do all you can to stay out of the battle; but once you enter it, fight to win. Prepare both legally and psychologically with documents and a positive “I’m going to win” attitude. Keep your plans to go legal to yourself until you are ready to act.

Passing the responsibility buck. Failure to take responsibility and shifting responsibility for your own mistakes to someone else is often behind breakdowns in group planning and action. The results are lack of follow-through, poor communication about outcomes and resentment. If you really don’t have time to do something, rather than causing resentment by manipulating someone else into doing it for you, it is much better to appeal to the person to do you a favour. If you are in a situation where someone is trying to shift his or her responsibility on to you, decide whether it is worth telling the person where you feel the responsibility really lies, or whether it might be easier to accommodate the request as an extra service or courtesy, even if unjustified. In other words, what is the cost of doing something versus the cost of doing nothing?

Get out while you can. Start all projects with commitment and enthusiasm but watch for warning signs, such as when the other parties try to change agreements. This can be fine when circumstances change but don’t let anybody use a rule change to put you at an increasing disadvantage. If you start to feel you are being drawn into a trap, get out then and there.

When “Help” turns into “Help!!!” Sometimes when someone tries to help, it can turn into a hindrance when they try to help too much. They may have good intentions but you can end up feeling controlled and led. Too much help can turn into a trap that keeps you stuck and dependent on the helper who then becomes like a captor. If you see the trap closing in on you, “get out of the palace before it becomes a prison”.

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Capturing and keeping the job

In the penultimate section of the book, the author looks at various problems involved in finding and retaining employment in today’s job market.

Beating the recommendation game. Getting recommendations today can sometimes be difficult when the company you worked for is no longer in business or is “recommendation shy” i.e. they fear to say anything because of lawsuits (the author is describing the USA here). If references won’t work, you will have to find an alternative that will (e.g. a “super-good” resume, references from community or volunteer programme leaders who know you, or preparing to do an extra good interview). Don’t advertise weaknesses in your background unless you can turn them into strengths.

Knowing when to back off. Don’t push a job negotiation too far. If you can’t get everything you want, it may be better to take what you can get. Thoroughly think through all your requests before you make them – watch out that a “little nibble” isn’t the last bite that blows the deal.

What to do when everything at work seems to be going wrong. Ask yourself why it is happening. Look on a series of bad experiences as a time to reflect and make changes, based on your insights about what these experiences are telling you.

Watch out for warning signs. Sometimes there are early warning signs that things aren’t going to work out. If you see them soon enough, they may be a signal it’s time to get out or make changes. Even if you can’t do anything about them, they may help you afterwards better understand what happened or why you don’t want to take a particular job or work with a particular group of people. View whatever happened as a learning experience letting you know you have to pay closer attention to sign of problems ahead in future.

Don’t resign yourself – redesign yourself. Many people today run sacred of losing their jobs and find the fast pace of change demoralising. But you don’t have to resign yourself to being one more statistic in the turbulent new economy. Instead, you should think how to redesign yourself to create anew improved future for you. Like the chameleon, be ready to change as the environment changes around you. Let others know so they see you growing and developing and will want to help you.

Be a problem solver (theirs, not yours). To keep up in today’s fast changing work environment can be a problem when you have to keep learning new skills and strategies and fear your job could be under threat. To solve the problem, look at it from a different perspective – “theirs”, not yours. Think about how you can help them solve it and do a better way of doing what they want to do. If you turn yourself into the answer to their problem, you may find the answer to your own.

Dealing with the “boss from hell”. If you want to keep your job despite a tyrannical boss, find ways to get along, so later you can better get out when the going is good. Find ways to relax and relieve stress so you are better able to get along. Think of saying “yes” as a way to survive as long as you have to work with this tyrant. Learn what you can so you can “flee the regime” on better terms when the opportunity arises.

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Putting it together

The author acknowledges that there is no exact science, no perfectly “right” way in figuring out how to promote good relationships, solve problems or resolve conflicts in the workplace. But she suggests that you can “master your survival skills” by using a range of techniques (a “toolkit”) for thinking about and improving relationships at work:

  • Visualising possible options and outcomes – look at them as a series of photos or a film or stage play occurring in your mind’s eye.
  • Using visualisation for goal setting, preparation and planning – think about what steps are needed to reach the goals.
  • Whether envisioning the big picture or the day-to-day strategising of office politics, keep it practical through weighing the positives and negatives of alternative scenarios (cost-benefit analysis).
  • Use the “E-R-I” Model for resolving conflicts (Emotions-Reasons-Intuition) – this first gets emotions out of the way, uses reason to understand what’s going on by recognising different views and interests involved, and then uses intuition to brainstorm different alternatives and choose among them.
  • Considering different ethical approaches to resolve ethical issues – use the Ethical Choices Model for making choices that best fit with your own ethical values (the model identifies whether a person is more or less practical or moral in their values, more or less rational in their style, more or less of a conformist or an innovator in their attitude to rules, and more or less altruistic or self-interested in their orientation to others).
  • Addressing the causes of misunderstanding and conflict in the workplace – clearing up communications, checking out assumptions by getting the facts. knowing how to deal with difficult personalities, and understanding how to play the political game in the workplace.

“Your Workplace Survival Quotient” is a self-assessment quiz based on 25 questions that enables you to rate yourself on some of the major ways of working together that lead to better relationships and success in the workplace. Think of this, says the author, like a flight plan as you fly through the sometimes friendly and not so friendly work skies. You can use the results to improve the areas where you are weak “so you don’t merely survive but thrive” in the workplace.

The book has certainly attracted a lot of favourable comment from reviewers. One describes it as “a treasure trove of no-nonsense ways” to deal with difficult people and situations in the workplace. Another says it “equips readers with the tools needed to navigate the choppy waters that can plague any office or place of business”. And a third tells us it “provides new insights for all of us who occasionally have days when we’d rather stay in bed than face our co-workers’ behaviours.” One of the strengths of the book is that it does not assume that problems in the workplace are always somebody else’s fault; it makes us think about when and why we too have been difficult at work.

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