By Andrew Forrester
Navigating hard personalities who make it their mission to ruffle feathers at work can be taxing for you and your coworkers. Here are some ways to help your colleague find more positive ways to contribute to the team and, hopefully, smooth some feathers along the way.
“Difficult people are the greatest teachers.”
Pema Chodron, American nun
There’s always someone, isn’t there? I’m not talking about the employee who bugs you personally, or the team member who gets under your skin on occasion: I’m talking about that person who seems to have made it their life’s work to ruffle feathers. The person who forces you and your coworkers to suppress groans when they enter the room, and to bite your tongues when they leave.
If you’re like me, your first impulse is to avoid this sort of person. Rather than deal with the almost-guaranteed wave of annoyance, I’d prefer to make an excuse and duck out of the room to, I don’t know, “grab my printouts from the copier,” or come down with a sudden illness.
The problem, of course, comes when you’re a manager who doesn’t have this luxury. Plus, you have the added weight of considering how this person might be affecting others and then managing the frustrations and generally complicated emotions that may come as a result. Here are some ways to help your colleague find more positive ways to contribute to the team and, hopefully, de-ruffle some feathers along the way.
Watch, Learn and Ask Questions
Step one, as is usually the case, is to observe a bit. Pay attention to how people respond to this person, and what it is that aggravates others. Are they rude? Overbearing? Just kind of interpersonally annoying? Consider, too, how the Feather Ruffler likely experiences the day-to-day parts of working with you and your team. Are they isolated? Ignored? Frustrated by outside forces beyond your control?
Perhaps they’re just a complainer. Fine. What are they complaining about? What’s the source of their vexations? People want to feel heard, validated and understood, even when their complaints can’t be assuaged. So, it’s worth thinking about where you can agree with them. Validate what can be validated and gain some goodwill in the process.
This principle is true across the board. Before taking steps to “fix” what you perceive to be a problem, consider how you can make this employee feel seen by a boss who values them. It’s a really good first step.
Make Feedback the Norm
Receiving feedback graciously is a learned skill and one that can be really hard to come by. It can be especially difficult when the practice of offering feedback feels pointed, as if you’re the one kid in class that the teacher keeps calling out. If you have direct feedback for only one team member, you may have some legwork to do before rolling it out. A comprehensive feedback initiative might be your next step—or at least an impromptu, informal but universal review session at multiple levels and across multiple teams.
If, however, you’ve helped to cultivate an environment where feedback is the norm, then approaching your Feather Ruffler with some tough but fair words will be a whole lot easier. Rather than feeling targeted, they’ll understand your insights as one of the natural rhythms in the workplace and be more likely to respond positively.
Rely on Your People
You are only one person. A good rule of thumb before any action that may have lasting or wide-ranging effects is to run things by a trusted colleague or two. Suggested questions to ask: Is my sense of the social and professional dynamics at play accurate? And is it true across the board? Make the effort to learn what you can about Feather Ruffler and their history on the team rather than going in unprepared.
Another important question: Is there anything specific about this employee that you should know about? Without imposing on their privacy, there are always personal issues worth taking into account: family crises, relationships breaking down, health issues and so on. The last thing you want to do is to approach someone with a problem and only then realize that what’s felt work-related is in fact deeply personal. Remember that people are people and that we’re often messy. This moment could be an opportunity for understanding as much as anything else.
Just Be Honest
People aren’t dumb. Chances are, your Feather Ruffler knows the effect they have on others or at least senses the tension they create. It may even be the case that they’re hyper-aware of it, and their actions are the result of overcompensation. Whatever the case, when it comes time to offer feedback, no good can come from overly sugarcoating things. Be kind, of course, and gentle where you can; but be direct, too. Tell the truth. “Your actions (or attitude, methods, etc.) have upset some people. Here’s why I think that is.”
A clear, concise explanation of the state of things is in itself an act of kindness. And it will lead to a more fruitful conversation. There’s a chance you’ll be met with defensiveness, but there’s also a chance for real receptiveness and growth. Perhaps this person just needed an intervention, or a chance to step outside of their everyday in order to consider how they’re being perceived. Your honesty offers that opportunity better than any false niceness could.
Make them a Fellow Problem Solver
Not every situation like this one will end happily. These moments require hard, touchy conversations and a light touch. It can be especially difficult to know how to approach issues that feel as though they’re at the nexus of someone’s personal and professional lives. But imagining for a moment that your insights are well-received, your next step is to take action toward restoring the former Feather Ruffler’s place in your work ecosystem. Your best bet is to invite them to partner with you in this work. Where do they see areas for growth? How can they better interact with people they’ve frustrated in the past? Where could they use reminders of what is and isn’t appropriate, helpful and so on?
People are messy, but we’re in the messiness together. The worst-case scenario might involve further conversations about whether or not this is the best place for this particular colleague, and those will be tough but necessary. Of course, there is a best-case scenario here, too. In it, your employee walks away knowing that you’re on their side, while you walk away remembering why you hired this person. Between those options and a constant state of irritation, I’d take the former every time.
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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