Dealing with Difficult People (How do you respond as an individual contributor?)

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Dealing with difficult people

The bad boss. The competitive colleague. The toxic genius.

They make life difficult for you and others. But what can you do about them? Especially if you have no formal leadership position in your organization?

First, let me be clear that I’m talking about the more common people who are annoying or flawed, not the rare people who are categorically unethical or who have values completely antithetical to yours.

Maybe you feel overlooked, or you don’t get the support you need. Maybe you have a leader who simply makes poor business decisions, or a colleague who criticizes your work in public without ever finding something about you to compliment.

These can be especially hard when it lasts for a season, rather than being just a one-time or occasional occurrence.

Confronting the problem or leaving the company are sometimes valid or necessary options, especially when bad habits continue for too long or cross the line into harassment or illegal behavior.

But when you’re enduring longstanding annoyances and correction doesn’t seem to come, here are some ways you can make it easier to endure those difficult people by finding the gift or opportunity that comes from the challenge:

1️⃣ Take the opportunity to develop your own empathy. Remembering that hurting people hurt people may help you find the emotional intelligence to respond with grace. See if there’s a way you can help ease the other person’s discomfort without condoning their reaction to it. They probably won’t expect it. And the more you practice understanding what other people are feeling, the more of an impact you can have on your work culture.

2️⃣ You may need to exercise wise discretion to know when overlooking a problem turns into enabling it, but if the issue is a personal slight or attack, you may simply choose to forgive the offense.

3️⃣ Take some time to analyze what triggered the response in the other person. Make a note for you own development to pay attention when you experience similar triggers, and choose in advance what response you want to have. Use the experience to become a better person who won’t make the same kind of mistake.

4️⃣ Without spreading rumors or complaints, see if you notice any other people who were affected by the other person’s behavior. Look for opportunities to support them and possibly counter any emotional damage they may have endured.

None of these positive responses are technically your responsibility. It’s normal and natural to respond to insults or mistreatment in an equally negative way. But when you can look for the gift or opportunity hidden in the behavior of difficult people, you can take action to improve both your work culture and your career.

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