By Andrew Forrester
As a supervisor, it’s your job to solve difficult problems. So what happens when those difficulties aren’t just problems, but people? Here are some tips for restoring peace in the office without losing ground.
“Research shows that the best way to deal with negativity is to observe it, without reaction and without judgment. Then consciously label each negative feeling and replace it with positive, compassionate and solution-based thoughts.”
Chris Voss, Former FBI hostage negotiator and Co-Author of the book Never Split the Difference
Human beings can be so hard to work with. Really, it’s a wonder that any of us manage to get anything done in a world filled with so many different kinds of people. This is especially true at work. Each day as a supervisor means interacting with team members, all with their own personalities, experiences, hopes, dreams, pet peeves, value systems and so on. It’s a fact of life that some people will be more difficult to work with than others, and it’s another fact that you, as a supervisor, will be expected to deal with these difficulties.
But how do you do it? How do you approach these uncomfortable conversations and (occasionally) confrontations in a way that can restore your office to a place of positivity and peacefulness? Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
When you find yourself consistently running into challenging situations with a particular individual, it’s worth pausing to determine where the issue comes from. Is it a matter of clashing personalities? A perception of unfairness or injustice? Maybe this “problem” person is actually experiencing personal, non-work-related trouble? Whatever the situation, it’s vital that you, as a supervisor, take a beat and evaluate.
If trouble only arises in large meetings, that probably means something different than tensions in the break room or passive-aggressive emails. And each of these situations calls for different solutions. As tempting as it might be to rush to confront (or shush!) an especially squeaky wheel, your role as a supervisor calls for careful observation, a little bit of patience and an even-headed approach to fostering equanimity and peace.
Remember, It’s Not About You
As you work to diagnose the source of trouble, take pains to stay calm, and remind yourself that workplace drama is very rarely personal. Even if a “difficult person” seems to only have difficulties with you, their issues are likely professional. You are not your leadership style, so if the way you run meetings or make decisions rubs someone the wrong way, it doesn’t mean you rub them the wrong way.
This is where a trusted colleague or workplace mentor can come in clutch. Turn to someone you know to be tactful and diplomatic, and ask them to weigh in. ”Do you think this person is disruptive across the board? Am I at fault in any way? Is this behavior even worth addressing?” When you know the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to proceed to next steps with a clear head, confident that your perspective on the situation is not just your own.
Practice Tactical Empathy
So what do you do? Chris Voss is the former chief hostage negotiator for the FBI and author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It. He makes the case for “tactical empathy”: a negotiating technique that works with everyone from literal hostage-takers to the employee who seems to have made it their mission in life to complain about each of your decisions. For Voss, any sort of negotiation should be predicated on empathy, which for him means the ability to identify and acknowledge another person’s feelings and perspective.
The key here is to make your employee feel heard. Say you approach a particularly disgruntled person – maybe the one who responds to each of your emails with a biting critique. Instead of leading with critiques of your own or complaints about how utterly lacking in email etiquette they are, tell them what you know to be true. Name what they seem to be feeling or, in FBI-speak, label it: “I understand that you have some frustrations with the way I communicate”; “It looks like you’re unhappy with something in my latest email.” These aren’t admissions or agreements, just acknowledgments. But they demonstrate to your employee that you understand them, which means you might actually be able to help them. Rather than feeling criticized or attacked by a cold, distant boss, they’ll feel seen and heard, which is what everyone, disgruntled or not, really wants.
When in Doubt, Err on the Side of Respect
Whichever direction your conversation takes, in this and all future interactions, you want to make it your mission to respect this person as a fellow human being. This means ensuring their right to privacy (rather than complaining willy-nilly to whoever will listen). This means infusing your conversations with patience and, when possible, grace (rather than running a short fuse or allowing yourself to be pre-annoyed by them). This means, more than anything, listening. All the tactical empathy in the world counts for nothing if it’s only ever tactical. In a situation like this, harmony requires concessions on both sides: you’ll have to give up some of your time and probably hold back on some of your more temperamental impulses, while your employee will be expected to modify their behavior. Actions such as these are far easier when they’re undertaken in an environment of mutual respect.
Make Yourself Available for Feedback
Dealing with difficult people is part of your job as a supervisor, and of course, this likely involves offering them feedback that they’re unlikely to enjoy receiving. One way to make these interactions sting a bit less is to make yourself available for feedback, too. It helps if you’ve already established this kind of community—one with open-door policies and open lines of communication. But if that’s still an area of growth for you, don’t sweat it. Now is your chance to place a flag in the ground and declare to your team, Hey, this is a two-way street.
The ball is in your court. While it might feel like you’re risking opening up a complaint department, in fact you’ve just allowed yourself to model what healthy, helpful, respectful feedback looks and sounds like. By moving with empathy, speaking with respect, and listening—really listening—you’ve shown your employees how to best deal with you as well. Because let’s face it, we can all be a little difficult on occasion. Why not prepare for that eventuality by treating others as you hope to be treated whenever your time comes?
Make the Call
Of course, sometimes people escalate from difficult to impossible. The best negotiators still lose on occasion, and there will always be people who dig their heels in, even in the face of all that empathy and respect. If you’ve exhausted all your options, you need to make a call. Depending on your situation, it might be time to bring in one of your supervisors or reach out to HR for their expertise. Perhaps you need to consider transferring this employee to a different department where they seem better suited, or even letting this person go. None of these are easy decisions, but neither are they made in a vacuum. When you’ve taken pains to make your employee feel seen and heard and done your part, too, by opening yourself to feedback, you can make your next decisions with clarity and self-assurance, knowing you’ve done all you can do. And more than likely, you’ve created a more pleasant, functional workplace in the process.
Andrew Forrester is a writer whose work has appeared in Parents Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Andrew also teaches English and creative writing in Austin, Texas, and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Southern Methodist University.
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