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Five tips for dealing with difficult coworkers

September 20, 2012  By Dottie DeHart

Sept. 20, 2012 — Too often, organizations promise satisfaction to
external customers and then allow internal politics to frustrate their
employees’ good intentions to deliver. It’s important to remember that
your customers aren’t the only ones who come through your organization’s
door every day seeking quality service.

Your coworkers and leaders also need to be served. If they’re not happy,
it’s not likely they’ll deliver stellar service, and the same goes for
you. Inevitably, “difficult people” will creep into your work life,
disturbing your, your colleagues’, and your leaders’ workflow and
negatively affecting the service you all provide your customers.

Ron Kaufman, founder of UP! Your Service, a global service education and
management consultancy firm with offices in the United States and
Singapore, has some eye-opening news for you. He says, at some point,
we’re all viewed by our colleagues as the organization’s “difficult
person.” That’s why it’s important that we find a way to provide
uplifting service internally all the time – even (and especially!) when
difficult situations arise so that internal tiffs don’t lead to rifts
with customers.


“Once you’ve characterized someone as a ‘difficult person,’ you’re already in a lose-lose situation,” says Kaufman, author of Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet
(Evolve Publishing, 2012). “It’s like my view on difficult customers:
There are no difficult customers; there are only difficult customer
situations. Similarly, there are no difficult coworkers. There are only
difficult coworker situations. And once you start to think differently
about how to manage those difficult situations, everyone can be more
satisfied and better served, including you, your colleagues, and most
importantly, your customers.”

What Kaufman is talking about is an uplifting service culture change. In Uplifting Service,
he writes that service is taking action to create value for someone
else, and that “someone else” can be outside or inside your

“When the entire organization agrees to define the way they work
together using this definition of service, everyone will be able to
focus on creating value and serving each other better, which leads to
better external service,” says Kaufman. “Instead of seeing an angry
coworker and not wanting to have anything to do with him, you will
naturally stop and think, What does this person value? What is he not
getting that he needs? What can I do now to serve him better? When this
culture of service takes hold in the organization, everyone feels better
and works better together.”

Kaufman offers the following advice on using difficult situations to
start building an uplifting service culture in your business:

1. Assess the situation carefully. Is your colleague
deeply upset or simply having a bad day? Is she angry about an ongoing
internal issue that must be addressed and solved, or a one-off situation
like a presentation gone wrong? Is this a process problem that
persistently provokes, or a one-time irritation that will naturally fade
away? “Once you have assessed the situation,” notes Kaufman, “You can
then determine whether the person just requires a little personal
attention from you—or whether a larger plan must be created.”

2. Shift your perspective.
Stop thinking of your colleague as
“difficult” and start thinking about the difficulty he is experiencing,
and how you can serve him in his current situation. What is it he is
concerned, disturbed, or upset about that’s leading to his behavior?

Once you realize what a difficult situation means to another person, you
can approach the issue with more compassion, generosity, empathy, and
patience. This is far more effective for both parties than concluding
that another person is difficult all the time or is always overreacting.

“The reality is that you never really know all that is going on with
another person, with his family’s health or his financial situation,”
notes Kaufman. “You don’t know what happened at his home that morning or
the night before. You don’t really know what triggered this emotionally
upset moment. You can therefore decide, Let me choose compassion for
this person instead of judgment and start exercising empathy.”

3. Lean in and work on the problem together.
A “difficult”
person often behaves that way because she is trying to get something she
needs, or is trying to make something happen. She probably thinks the
only way she can get her colleagues’ attention is by outwardly showing
her anger. But we know from experience that the way to get better
service is to be a better customer. And the same goes for getting the
help we all want from our colleagues.

“Let your colleague know—as subtly as possible—that being upset, angry,
or ‘difficult’ is not the best way to get what she needs,” suggests
Kaufman. “You can start by saying, ‘I care. Help me understand what you
are concerned about.’ By saying this and then listening, often her anger
will fade away. Once your colleague has calmed down, you can say,
‘Thank you for explaining this to me. Let’s solve this problem together.
It’s not us or them. It’s just us.’ And then you can both get to work
solving the problem.”

4. Plan how you’ll work together.
One way to defuse a difficult
situation is to pull out a piece of paper and decide what actions each
of you will take next. This helps remove emotional tension and gets
everyone down to work.

“The sooner you say, ‘Let’s figure this thing out. What action can I
take that will create value for you? Let’s agree on next steps. Let’s
make some promises to each other,’ the better,” says Kaufman. “Working
this way creates a culture of colleagues taking action to create value
for each other. It takes emotion out of the equation and creates a
platform where people can work more effectively with each other.”

5. Role model the right behavior. One of the best ways
to make this behavior a part of your company culture is to role model it
yourself. And you can do this from any position in the organization:
from the top, the middle, or the frontline. Eventually, your colleagues
will see how you handle these situations and how well your approach
leads to positive action.

“When others see that problems don’t need to be painful, that emotions
don’t need to be escalated, they’ll realize that ‘difficult situations’
don’t need to consume all your energy, or your entire day,” notes
Kaufman. “As more and more people inside your organization take this
approach, they will recognize this is what the culture is becoming, this
is what our company really is. Everyone will see that this approach
really works, and everyone will want to take part.”

“Think about it like this: The ‘difficult’ coworkers you encounter on a
given workday are simply people seeking service,” says Kaufman. “Being
able to recognize and reconcile those situations internally is just as
important as being able to recognize when a customer interaction has
gone south. With surprising service coming from the inside, it’s easier
to step up your service on the outside. And when that happens, everyone
at the organization wins.”

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