Give Murphy's Law the boot: web resources to work around difficult people

Learn how to improve your work environment in spite of difficult people with these web site resources.

By Russ Kratowicz

The work environment is supposed to be civilized, tolerant and supportive. It’s tough enough to come in each day to earn your daily bread without things getting nasty after you arrive. When all seems to be going along smoothly in strict accord with these three criteria, it’s easy to start taking things for granted.

But, as you’ve probably figured out by now, real life never works out that way. Mr. Murphy nailed it down quite succinctly: There’s always someone messing things up and knocking our lives off that perfectly even keel.

Every maintenance department should make a concerted effort to ban difficult people, conflict and angry outbursts from the workplace. We’re already short-handed and when the old hands retire, there won’t be anyone to fill in after them. Productivity is at stake here, folks. In the spirit of world betterment, let me take you on a guided tour of the morass we call the Web in search of practical, zero-cost, noncommercial, registration-free Web resources that can, if nothing else, explain a bit about human psychology. Remember, we search the Web so you don't have to.

Difficult people

Things would be fine if your coworkers were as reasonable and affable as you are. Unfortunately, that expectation is a bit too idealistic to have any traction at all. You’ve got to take them as they come, so you might as well get comfortable doing so. “Learning to Deal With Difficult People” is a brief article based on an interview with Robert M. Bramson, Ph.D. This piece first appeared in the October 2001 issue of Vitality magazine and it offers a few strategies for coexisting with four classes of unpleasant people: the outwardly aggressive, snipers, complainers and silent people. The objective is not to change the traits these people display. The idea is to have the tools that can prevent anyone from hindering your journey up one corporate ladder or another. If that sounds reasonable, have your digital mouse climb the rungs it will find at www.confidencecenter.com/art12.htm.

Dr. Marilyn Manning at The Consulting Team, LLC, Mountain View, Calif., also weighs in on the topic. A page on her Web site offers some options for handling a variety of quirky folks: the bully, the princess, the passive-aggressive, the baby, the chronically negative, people pleasers and nonplayers. Manning recommends mentally classifying the difficult people with whom you must deal and preparing a crib sheet for each that you can review just before having to interact with them. I wonder if this is where CRM software got its start.

Anyway, pay a visit to www.mmanning.com/Articles.html. When you get there, scroll down, watching the left side of the screen for the article titled “Seven Difficult Personality Types and How to Deal with Them.” Then, click that omnipotent mouse to access the first few paragraphs. If what you see is worth your while, click on the link that brings you the full article. When the PDF loaded on my machine, certain letter combinations – ff, fi and ffi – appeared as small boxes. Be forewarned, the text is more readable once you’re prepared for this typographic oddity.

Is it possible that difficult people often don’t realize the bad ways their behavior patterns affect others around them? Such is the argument put forth in the March 1999 issue of an online newsletter from The Institute for Management Excellence in Lacey, Wash. This edition of the newsletter focuses your attention on only the know-it-all and the do-it-my-way varieties of unpleasant folk. It explores possible underlying psychological reasons they act the way they do, highlights some of the unintended consequences that can befall them and offers tips for handling them when they happen to cross your path. Most importantly for our purposes, the newsletter also includes ideas for getting rid of your own negative characteristics that so irritate your coworkers. Before you leave www.itstime.com/mar99.htm, be sure to scroll down to “Articles” for links to other Web sites with related content.

Rolling downhill

Generally speaking, the common, ordinary grade of difficult people can be neutralized easily and without any remorse on your part. If they’re your peers on the corporate ladder, you can still stop some of their nonsense. On the other hand, the inherent power asymmetry vis-à-vis one’s immediate supervisor makes thwarting difficult behavior from that quarter a bit more problematic. When the difficulty rains down from just above your head on the organizational chart, you should thank The CMR Group in Boston, Mass., for developing www.badbossology.com/, a site that offers help with difficult-boss problems. This is where you’ll find links to 1,200 articles and resources on handling difficult managers. Many of the offerings offer you a chance to provide feedback via an anonymous e-mail scheme that helps provide you with some plausible deniability should it ever be required. There’s even content for upper management to help them identify difficultism while looking downward and to provide advice about suitable actions should they spot some.

“Why your boss is programmed to be a dictator,” by Chetan Dhruve, is a 44-page philosophical treatise on management that draws parallels with modern political reality. His major premise is that, in the context of leading people, only an elected person can be called a leader. The corollary he claims necessarily follows is that an unelected person is, by definition, a dictator. Once we’re cast in the role of boss or subordinate, there develops a series of so-called emergent behaviors that, in the main, aren’t good for the long-term improvement of the overall organization. In fact, Dhruve argues that employees must be granted the right to vote for whom they would have as their bosses. Order your desk rodent to fetch the contents of www.changethis.com/pdf/19.05.BossDictator.pdf for a thought-provoking lunch-hour read.

Standard of behavior

So much of our slog through the Web this month might be viewed as an exercise in negativity, but I think that’s the natural outcome when discussing a most unpleasant topic -- difficult people. It would be incongruous and unbelievable, don’t you think, if such exploration was all sweetness and light. If nothing else, however, we can replace a diffused sense of uneasiness that accompanies the arrival of these people with a much clearer view of the reasons, mechanisms and psychology behind our feelings and their actions and behaviors. With respect to the question of difficult people in the corporate hierarchy, life could become so much easier if every employee, regardless of rank, would adopt and conform to the more appropriate mode of behavior outlined in Standard No. 37IWS-SMILE, which you will find at www.livinginternet.com/fun/funstandard.html. This document is brought to you by William Stewart at Living Internet in Ottawa.

A culture of civility

Some amount of disagreement over philosophy, best practices and technical detail is healthy in any maintenance department seeking to be all that it can be. But when the disagreements devolve to what could be classified as petty interpersonal squabbles, it might be time to employ some form of dispute resolution. And that doesn’t mean allowing your department head to make some arbitrary decision. You’ll never achieve a civil work environment that way. So, instead of letting the parties involved duke it out in the parking lot during lunch, pummel your mouse until it agrees to go to www.allbusiness.com/business_advice/articles/12260.html  to retrieve “Tips for Dealing with Workplace Conflict.” This article, provided by the good folks at AllBusiness.com in San Bruno, Calif., lays out a structured approach to restoring a bit more peace and tranquility that translates into improved productivity.

Make a plan

“Assessing workplace conflict resolution options,” by Kirk Blackard, appeared in the Februaary-April 2001 issue of Dispute Resolution Journal, a publication of the American Arbitration Association, New York. The main point Blackard makes is that effective dispute resolution balances potential costs against potential benefits. This article warns that a passive management approach allows others to control the conflict resolution effort and direction. Also, involving third parties can result in an unnecessarily costly resolution. Instead, management ought to adopt a proactive strategy, and Blackard offers some tips for establishing one. You can find these pearls of wisdom at www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3923/is_200102/ai_n8944834

Anger management

An astounding statistic that came out of the research for this column is that one out of five Americans has an anger management problem. Maybe we’d be wise to start wearing bullet-proof long johns 24/7. Mismanaged anger among the hoi polloi leads to domestic abuse, road rage, workplace violence, divorce and addiction. Scary stuff, especially if it’s you who is angry. According to the American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C., there are three main ways to deal with our anger, two of which aren’t good for you in the long run. The trick is to learn how to express your anger in a safe manner. This article explains possible origins of the anger response and lists a few strategies for dealing with those nasty feelings when they well up in your psyche. So, slap your silly mouse over to www.apa.org/pubinfo/anger.html for a chance to read “Controlling Anger -- Before It Controls You”

A little mischief

Perhaps one reason people are targets for the anger waves that emanate from a certain direction is that someone senses vulnerability. The concept is similar to an adult version of the infamous playground bully we all knew and loved. Well, “Coping With Your Co-workers or Boss” by Leonard Ingram at The Anger Institute and Royal House Publishing in Herndon, Va., offers advice to anyone who feels like they might be such a target. This brief article at www.angermgmt.com/coworkers.asp suggests a two-step approach to getting out from under the unnecessary flack. The key is never to take the flack-slingers seriously. The mischief they toss is merely a trifle that rational folks like you and I can safely ignore.

Take a class

When we talk about anger, we should define our terms. A proper display of anger doesn’t necessarily involve giving a coworker a chest full of birdshot. In fact, in the work world, acts of bodily violence against the unsuspecting person in the next cubicle are rare. In most cases, the anger oozes out in some pretty subtle ways. But, what if it’s mental illness, not a case of uncontrolled stereotypical anger? It’s a complex matter, and an employer better get a handle on it before it’s too late. Anger management classes are the typical response, but they’re not always successful. “When It’s Time For Anger Management” by Linda Wasmer Andrews, an article that appeared in the June 2005 issue of HR magazine, offers a good summary of the options and difficulties involved with teaching people to channel their angry spirit. Pay a polite visit to www.shrm.org/hrmagazine/articles/0605/0605andrews.asp for the details if someone you know could use a healthy dose of anger management know-how.

In celluloid

The idea of controlling one’s anger spasms was popularized in 2003 with the release of the Nicholson/Sandler comedy, “Anger Management.” Although I couldn’t find a free download of the entire flick, I did find basic info at the Internet Movie Database Inc. Web site at www.imdb.com/title/tt0305224/. Enjoy.

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