Free eBooklet from H2!

Monday, 27 July 2009

Dealing with difficult relationships at work

As a trainer, I often meet people who are anxious to find answers and solutions to various reationship issues they have at work. Many of us spend more hours at work than we do at home, or with friends and family - so it's no wonder that difficult relationships with colleagues and/or managers is cited as one of the biggest sources of stress. If you're having to deal with one or more difficult relationships at work, here's some of the advice I've given in the past:

Differences and conflict are to be expected
Remember that a certain number of differences and conflicts in the workplace are not only normal - they are to be expected, and can be a healthy sign of a diverse team. One of the key factors determining the success of working relationships is not whether there are any conflicts/differences, but how they are dealt with. Learning to respond positively to such situations will therefore almost certainly improve the quality of the overall relationship you have with your colleagues.

It's probably not personal
Remember that this is a work situation and it is quite likely that the person/s causing you difficulty would probably be doing the same to anyone in your position. So try not to personalise it too much. The perpetrator is normally focused on their own needs and not worrying about you as a person. You represent someone who is getting in the way of their own plans or desires in one way or another, so whilst viewing them as a person do not get pulled into their problem.

Don't try to change them
Difficult people will not change on their own and it is unlikely that you will be able to change them. Although this can be a depressing thought, take comfort in the fact that this at least makes their actions predictable. Just because they won’t change it does not mean that you cannot change the situation, or that careful planning can result in a successful outcome for you.

Try to see them as an ally
Being in conflict tends to make people see the “other side” as an enemy, and to look for their mistakes. You need to reverse this, by recognising and reinforcing the positive elements of each person’s position within the context of the team as a whole.

Seek to resolve, not to dissolve
Be clear with yourself and with them that you want to reach a win/win resolution. If you get into a head-on battle based on retaliation then you are both likely to have a miserable time. Formulate your strategy and decide what you want the outcome to be. Then concentrate on achieving this, and not on the negative issues or your bad feelings about the person.

Keep it in perspective
Keep the whole situation in perspective. This is just one situation in your life, and you are probably surrounded by many other positive things. Focus on the people who are important to you and seek solace with your colleagues and or clients at work that do support you.

Be prepared
Plan your approach to the situation. Once you are sure that your feelings are reasonable, think strategically about what you would like to change, and the best way of making it happen. Keep in mind your on-going relationship with the person, and don’t be afraid to compromise for the sake of a greater goal. Before you approach the person, practice what you’re going to say, and establish a positive, assertive frame of mind.

Clarify perceptions
Genuine progress can’t be made without understanding on all sides. You need to make sure that everyone fully understands each other’s standpoint. Be a good role model by listening with empathy and summarising the main points clearly and unemotionally. Use ‘we’ statements to describe areas of common ground and to encourage a more collaborative approach.

Focus on shared interests
Identify the things that are important to all concerned. Ask them “What is really important to you?” There are usually multiple interests, and some will be shared, which is the basis for resolution. Recognise that sustaining relationships requires meeting the needs of both. Postpone contentious demands that might damage the relationship until shared interests have been established.

Tackle the difficult stuff
The past can be an impenetrable barrier to the future. People cling on to protect pride and old beliefs. Letting go may be difficult and painful, but is essential to open the gate to the future. Demonstrate and encourage forgiveness (without necessarily offering approval), and try to articulate what usually goes unexpressed. Focus on the feelings of here and now, without picking open old wounds.

Listen to their responses
Whilst you can ensure that you handle a difficult situation assertively, it is not always going to be the case that the other person will immediately agree and show compliance. Even the best suggestions have potential problems and you may be questioned on your ideas. Be careful that you don’t to see their questioning as disagreement – or you may react aggressively (by arguing your point) or non-assertively (by quickly backing down). Try to handle their response reasonably, and assertively.

Suggest options for the future
Find ways of creatively identifying alternatives together. Listen and give proper consideration to all ideas without dismissing any offhand. Discuss ways of inventing new options to meet shared needs.

Agree mutual benefits
Before agreeing to action, make sure everyone feels that a win-win solution has been found (although compromises may need to be made along the way). Construct a detailed vision of the future. Don’t rush this stage.

Agree action
Develop quick wins; that is, things that can immediately be done to bring both sides closer to the shared goal. Ensure that you are both clear about any action that is required. Don’t rely on temporary quick fixes that are not sufficient to meet the longer-term solution. Encourage personal accountability by suggesting that you review the situation after a practical length of time – and make sure you both stick to it. If people don’t feel responsible, you haven’t reached a full resolution.

I hope these suggestions are useful. Of couse none of these will instantly transform the situation (no matter how desperately you'd love to wave a magic wand!) but they may well help to move things in the right direction. Repairing damaged relationships can take time, and always requires patience and a positive attitude. I'd love to hear from anyone who's successfully used any or all of the above ideas...

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Are you considered "difficult to manage"?

I was asked last week by one of my course attendees: "How do you know if your boss considers you to be difficult to manage?”

Of course nobody would like to think that they're thought of as (or worse still, actually) difficult to manage, but it has to be said... I also meet hundreds of managers in the course of my job who are relieved to be able to share stories of all their 'difficult' supervisees. So it doesn't take a genius to work out that there's got to be some of us who are considered difficult, but don't know it.

It is understandable that many people would assume that they would know if their boss thought badly of them, but in my experience many managers avoid telling their staff what they’re really thinking - especially if it's not all that positive. So why would we want to know the uncomfortable truth? Isn't is just easier to keep your head down, get on with your job and deal with the day-to-day interactions without 'navel-gazing' or worrying unduly about what our boss might think about us? My opinion is partly yes, because it's not helpful to become paranoid, or overly self-conscious at work. However, whilst you may be in 'blissful ignorance', your manager may be sharing their opinion with others. Clearly, getting a reputation for being “difficult to manage” can definitely be a problem if you want to progress within your organisation.

I therefore believe that there's a huge benefit to be gained by those who are willing to take an honest look at their own behaviour at work - particularly in relation to their own manager, and to make changes to anything that they think is getting in the way of either their personal goals, or is making their workplace relationships less than productive/pleasant.

Here are a few examples of "difficult to manage" behaviours that managers have shared with me. Why not take a few minutes to consider your current situation from your own boss’s point of view, and see if there are any that apply to you..

1. Difficulty accepting authority
It is inevitable that managers will have a certain amount of positional power. However, some individuals have a general resistance to being told what to do, or they feel that their particular manager is not qualified, skilled or experienced enough to manage them properly. These attitudes are usually spotted by managers who are on the receiving end of arguments, heated debates, protracted discussions or direct criticisms from their supervisees.

Could this be you? Our advice: Accept the fact that your manager's job includes supervising you, as that’s how organisations work! Even if you're not impressed with your manager's skills/abilities, you still need to demonstrate respect by learning how to express your opinions without arguing or criticising, and by turning conflicts into productive problem-solving discussions.

2. Ignoring management requests
Many people avoid being confrontational with their manager, as they know this will usually not go down too well. So instead, they opt for passive-aggressive behaviours, where they express their discontent, or even their contempt by 'choosing' not to complete tasks to quality or to deadline, or 'choosing' not to respond (quickly) to requests. If their manager ever raises these lapses, the individuals involved often express shock and resentment, and have a long list of circumstances or other people to blame.

Could this be you? Our advice: It is unwise to ignore anything that your manager asks you to do. If you don’t have enough time, if you have other priorities, or if the request seems unreasonable, then you should express your concerns at the time, in an assertive, non-confrontational manner. Respectful renegotiation of priorities is much better than failing to meet expectations.

3. Complaining about colleagues
Managers really dislike having their time wasted, being dragged into what they see as "petty squabbles" or "personality clashes" in their teams. If you take too many of these sorts of issues to your manager to solve, you will look like someone who can’t work well with others, or who can't resolve simple conflicts.

Could this be you? Our advice: If one of your colleagues is frustrating or annoying you, then ask yourself if their behaviour is affecting your ability to do a good job. If the answer is “no”, then do your best to distract yourself, stop worrying about it and just let it go. If their behaviour is having a negative impact on your work, then you should attempt to work out a solution, preferably directly with the person concerned. If you are unable to find a resolution, or if the issue is so serious that need to involve your manager, then focus on solving the 'business problem', and not on complaining about your colleague.

4. Negative attitude
Some people just seem to have a negative attitude at work. They may not have always been like that - it may be the pressure of work, or lack of direction that has made them that way. However, to a manager, having a person in the team who regularly whines, criticises or blames is very tiresome. Even if there are potential problems in an idea, managers experience people who always spot the problems as problems themselves.

Could this be you? Our advice: Take some time to reflect on your conversations with your manager, and estimate the percentage of positive and negative comments/contributions that you make. If you do point out possible problems, then try to balance these by including some positive aspects, such as how much you're looking forward to the challenge. Also try to include some positive feedback and appreciation to your interactions with your manager.

5. Unreliable
All managers are concerned about meeting deadlines because they are usually judged on how well they/their team meets them. If you are consistently late with your work, then your manager will eventually stop trusting you with important tasks. Even if you produce work to a high quality, your manager won't appreciate the effort you have put in if it is late.

Could this be you? Our advice: If you are involved in setting or negotiating your own deadlines, make sure they are realistic and take into account anything or anyone that might slow you down. If you realise that you are not going to meet a deadline that you agreed with your manager, then let them know as soon as possible and suggest strategies for damage limitation.

6. Defensive
Most managers find giving feedback or constructive criticism the most difficult part of their job. What makes it more difficult for them is having individuals to manage who cannot take the feedback or criticism without leaping to their own defence. This can involve a range of different behaviours, from blaming others to blaming personal circumstances. While managers try to be sympathetic about these issues, they often resent having them used as excuses for dips in performance.

Could this be you? Our advice: Nobody particularly likes being criticised, or being given feedback - even if it is constructive. It is a natural reaction to defend yourself from anything seen as an attack. However, try to understand and accept the criticism from your manager's point of view first by asking questions. Then calmly try to identify the possible causes of the problem, as part of a joint problem-solving exercise. If you know you've made a mistake, then own up early on and make suggestions about how you rectify the consequences, or learn from it for future reference.

7. Lacking initiative
Although it may seem that some managers just want people to do as they're told, most managers actually wish that their supervisees could get on with the job, and use their initiative instead of waiting for them to provide the direction or motivation to act. Even though the team may just be trying to be courteous, the manager can end up feeling like they're the only person in the team who has any drive or commitment.

Could this be you? Our advice: Although it is wise not to tread on your manager's toes by getting involved in issues that are clearly not part of your remit, there are plenty of ways you can demonstrate your initiative. Begin by showing an interest in how to improve your current responsibilities. Make suggestions, but let them have the final decision. Avoid taking problems to your manager without at least one possible solution. You may be able to come up with something together, but at least you're not just waiting for them to solve all your problems.

8. Disloyal
Most managers see their team at work as a sort of family group, and as such they will expect a level of loyalty to the team, and to them as the team leader. If a manager is contradicted in a meeting with other departments (even if it is justified); or if they know that a member of their team has been complaining or sharing problems with people outside their team (even if they see it as 'de-briefing' or 'reporting'), then they will feel extremely let down and undermined.

Could this be you? Our advice: Understand the importance of demonstrating loyalty in creating a strong trusting relationship with your manager. Even if there are problems, make sure that whatever you say to others, you have already said directly to your manager. Even better, discuss with your manager how any contentious issues might be shared with others. If you can show your commitment to putting on a united-front, you will reassure your manager that they can trust you.

If you're a manager, we'd love to hear any other suggestions from you about what makes a person "difficult to manage" - and even better, your suggestions as to what they could be doing to become a cherished employee...