What’s the best advice on working with difficult people?
Here are his brass tacks thoughts on working with difficult people in the office – specifically bullying bosses, control freaks and narcissists.
The Bullying Boss
Ask Yourself, “Why Am I Still Here?” No one deserves to be treated like chattel. To keep your sanity when you work for a bully, you need to look into your own heart to find the reason you stay, and that reason is what you need to hold on to. If it’s for money or power, or because it’s a necessary step in your career, go for it. In the dark times, that’s what you will need to remind yourself. If the only reason you’re staying is that you’re afraid to look for another job, it’s time to go. Your own fear will do you more damage than any bully ever could.
Be Realistic. Don’t expect your boss to change in response to anything you or anyone else might say or do, and don’t believe for a moment that if you somehow read his or her mind and do everything correctly, the criticism will come to an end. The criticism is the source of a bullying boss’s power. It is an end in itself. Instead of hoping for a miracle, observe carefully and anticipate attacks. Don’t be disappointed—be prepared.
Become Indispensable. If at all possible, develop competence in an area in which your boss lacks expertise. This knowledge base will make you more valuable and may give you some latitude for bargaining.
Transcend Temper. Most tyrannical bosses delight in criticizing their employees in front of others. When this happens to you need to endure it quietly with dignity. Maintain eye contact, and resist the temptation to explain. Your best strategy lies in listening to what the boss has to say, asking what he or she wants you to do, and getting out of the situation as quickly as possible. Many office tyrants say that they want employees who will stand up to them. I have never known any who would tolerate it, especially in front of an audience.
Keep Your Ducks in a Row. Know what is going on in your department, and be ready at a moment’s notice to recite facts and figures. Tyrants love to get their information by cross-examining their employees, rather than by listening to presentations. Be ready at any time to give information when subjected to the third degree.
Keep Records. When you are told to do something, make sure that what you are asked to do is clear. Log conversations and directives. You may need to refer to them later.
Demand Top Dollar. Many tyrants are willing to pay for the privilege of pushing their employees around. If you are going to stand up and stand firm in any area, that area should be salary. Make a coherent case, and don’t be afraid to “push.” This is one facet in which your boss is likely to be reasonable.
Forget Justice. The most dangerous strategy I can imagine is going over your boss’s head hoping that his or her boss will side with you. Often, tyrannical bosses do quite well with the bottom line, and their bosses tend to allow them quite a bit of leeway. If you do attempt to attack from above, realize that it is a kill-or-be-killed situation…
The Control Freak
The secret to dealing effectively with micromanaging control freaks…is to see their fear rather than your irritation. If you want them to be less controlling, you have to calm them down rather than making them more upset. Here are some ways to go about it:
Don’t Call Them Control Freaks. Getting irritated and calling them control freaks, whether out loud or in the privacy of your mind, will make the situation worse. Controlling people pay attention to tiny details. They will see your irritation as clearly as if you’d posted it on a billboard outside their office window. Your attitude will serve as evidence that they should watch you even more closely. Even if you bring it up in the kindest of ways possible, discussing the issue of control directly will backfire. Control freaks, even if they joke about it, never see themselves as overly controlling. They are only protecting an ungrateful world from the inevitable mistakes that result from not paying close enough attention. Forget trying to talk them out of it. Even seasoned therapists have trouble convincing the control-obsessed that his or her behavior might be causing more problems than it’s solving.
Use Reassurance, Not Recrimination. Take time before you start a job to get a clear and concrete idea of what your micromanaging boss wants, when she wants it, and how she wants it done. Take copious notes. There are two reasons to do this. The first is simple reassurance. If you look like you are taking her instructions seriously, she will worry less about you making mistakes. Control freaks love to lecture. When they do, listen carefully. Annoying as these lectures may be, they are inevitable. They are far less damaging at the beginning of a project than they will be later on if she thinks you made a mistake. The second reason for listening closely to this initial lecture is to come away with clear specifications of the end product required. Every task has a product, which is whatever it is that needs to be done, as well as a process, the actual behaviors through which the end product is achieved. At the beginning, negotiate to deliver a highly specific, measurable product at a specific time.
Give Progress Reports Before She Asks for Them. Nothing allays a control freak’s fears like excess information. Remind her that you are taking the project as seriously as she does.
If Your Boss Tries to Control the Process, Ask if This Means That the End Product Has Changed. The notes you took during that initial lecture will come in handy here. Treat attempts to control the process as requests to change the end product, which any businessperson would have to agree would reopen the whole negotiation. If the end product is not affected, why change the process? Needless to say, you must have some history of delivering the goods for a strategy like this to work.
First, Suck Up. There is no way around this. If you want to communicate effectively with narcissists, you have to admire them, their achievements, and their toys as much as they do. Typically, this won’t require any great effort. They’ll be more than happy to come up with reasons to congratulate themselves. All you have to do is listen and look interested. If not sucking up is a matter of principle with you, you will have to live with the consequences, namely being invisible to most of the people who can help your career along. The choice is yours.
Know What You Want for Yourself as Clearly as They Know What They Want for Themselves. Narcissists always know what they want, and they’re always trying to figure out how to get it. If your own needs are unclear to you, or you stand back and wait for them to give you what you deserve, you’ll never get anything.
Make Them Pay Up Front. Never extend credit to, or accept promises from, a narcissist. As soon as they get what they want, they will be on to the next thing, forgetting whatever they said they would do for you. Sometimes they make promises they don’t intend to keep, but just as often, they merely forget. Either way, you should keep a ledger in your mind and make sure you get what they dangle in front of you before you give them what they want. With other people, this mercenary approach might seem insulting. Narcissists will respect you for it. Everything in their world is quid pro quo. They will rarely be offended by people looking out for themselves.
Never Share Confidences. Narcissists love to talk about themselves. They may sound as if they’re being open and honest, but what they’re doing has nothing to do with intimacy. Do not reciprocate with stories about yourself, unless you want to hear them again at the most inopportune moment. Narcissists are experts at getting information out of people and are utterly ruthless about using it for their own purposes.
If You Are in a Position to Advise, Ask What People Would Think. Narcissists are not stupid; there are just things, like other people’s feelings, that they rarely consider. If you have their ear, don’t tell them how people might react; instead, ask probing questions. Narcissists are much more likely to act on ideas that they think they thought up themselves.
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