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Dealing with difficult behavior, Part I

Chris could barely restrain his anger as he returned to the ENG truck. He’d held his anger in front of the gathering crowd, but the slamming van door left little doubt that he was plenty pissed off.

Just moments earlier, the station’s latest news star had criticized him because the microphone cut out on her first live shot of the evening. It had only been a momentary drop, but the newscaster took the outage personally and launched into Chris as the cause. “I told you yesterday this mike cable needed to be fixed. How come you didn’t replace it or fix it or something?” she intoned. Now, Chris was going to be saddled with her witchy attitude for the entire evening shift. Gawd he hated her smart ass attitude.

The unseen fact was that Chris had replaced the microphone cable yesterday. And the cutout wasn’t in the outbound audio, but in her IFB. Chris thought, but didn’t say, “Maybe if she spent a little more time adjusting how she wore the IFB and a little less time on her makeup …”

Chris is stuck in a common work environment situation. In this case, the news talent unfairly attacked the engineer, who then beat a hasty retreat to the ENG van to avoid her. Was he right to withdraw. Or, should he have gone face-to-face with the newscaster?

Pain in the backside

“There’s only one way to do things around here, and it’s Howard’s way. The sooner you realize that whatever Howard wants Howard gets, the better off you’ll be and the less gray hair you’ll get,” Tom, the floor director, said. Bill listened in disbelief as Tom continued his diatribe about Howard, “the monster,” as he called him. Howard was the station’s “star” director, and management treated him with kid gloves. Whatever Howard wanted, Howard got. That came double when it came to pushing people around. Howard was one of those people who think they know everything and can’t wait to tell you that.

It didn’t take long for Howard’s behavior to become obvious. While taping a commercial, Howard complained about the lighting. But, just as the floor crew began to make the changes, Howard stormed from the control room to the studio floor and proceeded to tell the crew how to do their jobs. If that wasn’t bad enough, when one of the cameras developed a problem, Howard was quick to tell the client that he knew what the problem was; it was the maintenance staff that wasn’t smart enough to figure it out. By the end of his first week at the station, Bill realized that Howard truly believed he knew more than everyone else.

Difficult behavior is everywhere

These two examples dramatize the effect of problem-causing behavior in the workplace. You may be working with a Sherman tank who tries to run over everyone, or you might be at the mercy of a staller who can’t seem to make a decision. Manipulative or otherwise difficult people create problems for everyone who must work with them.

Their behavior not only causes stressful working conditions, but also limits creativity and productivity. If these individuals are in supervisory positions, their behavior also can increase absenteeism, lower staff morale and result in high employee turnover rates.

What’s worse, such people often are immune to the usual methods of communication and persuasion. Logical arguments seldom work. Sure you can call HR, but that opens another can of worms. What can be done to survive in such uncomfortable environments when you have to work with these village idiots?

Fortunately, there are techniques that can help you cope with these types of problem behaviors. Note I didn’t say cure or change these people. Instead, in this series of articles we’ll discuss some effective ways to respond to inappropriate behaviors within the work environment. Often, an effective response will help adjust the power balance to minimize the impact of the other person’s difficult behavior and help you regain some control over the situation.

Control yourself

What are problematic office behaviors? The list could be long, but let’s limit it to the seven general behavior types listed in Table 1 to the left. We’ll call people with these work personalities DPs for difficult people.

There are two basic approaches to coping with DPs: Attempt to change their behavior or change your response to their behavior. Forget about trying the first. Unless you are the DP’s supervisor, you probably don’t have the political power to effect the change. The only thing you can change is yourself and how you respond to the other person.

The second and more practical approach relies on developing patterns of interaction that limit the success of the problem person’s behavior. Coping methods work because they interfere with the DP’s desired effect on others. In each case, the DP expects a particular response. In fact, their behavior is predicated in getting you to act precisely as they expect. These people have a long history of successfully making people “dance to their tune.” Break the cycle of bad behavior, and you’ve created the opportunity for improved interactions.

However, if you don’t respond as the DP expects, the stage is set for an alternative interaction. The goal is to get on with the business of doing one’s job. The workplace is not the place to try and psychoanalyze anyone or for trying Transcendental Meditation tricks on someone. The goal of these techniques is to simply help create a smoother working environment.

Job one in all of the techniques we’ll discuss is to control your own behavior. For any of these techniques to work, you have to be able to recognize what’s happening and adjust your own response in predictable ways. If you also fly off at the handle or retreat, the battle is lost, and the DP has again won the encounter.

This series of articles will help you recognize when you’re being played and help you retain the proper thought process. The key is to stop and think about what you’re going to say and do when these situations arise. You also must learn how to correctly recognize the difficult behaviors and then reply with a correct response. If you use the wrong techniques, the desired results won’t happen.

Your success will depend on many factors. And, not every incident can be affected by these techniques. However, if you apply the skills we’ll be discussing in future articles, you can reduce your stress level and improve your workplace environment. You won't win every battle, but you can greatly level the playing field.

Question: Got a DP in your workplace? Share your experiences with others by posting your comment below.