It can be particularly frustrating when you can’t avoid dealing with such people in your daily job. You may try to be professional and pleasant with them with (no result), or choose to complain to your boss, who probably says that you need to learn to deal with different people. You get reactive and start telling whoever wants to listen how frustrated you are, and how great it would be if they finally disappeared from the company and your life. It only provokes more rudeness and isolation. You end up either completely withdrawing yourself from the situation by looking for a new job, or becoming bitchy and unpleasant to everyone around you.
Can you relate to this experience in some way? If so, there’s one fundamental mistake you make dealing with such people: you think about them as a problem.
Difficult people are never a problem, they are just a symptom.
People in groups or organizations are part of a system. If you've ever heard of the systems theory, you know that systems function according to their own laws. A system is smarter than its single member and is really good at self-regulation.
A system largely dictates how people behave towards each other. Each person within the system has a particular role. Think about a system as a living entity, something or someone who’s not visible but actually directs who does what in the group. Every role a system creates serves some purpose. For example, a system may require an ‘inspirator’, someone who will inspire other members to reach for the stars. This is not an official position, so the ‘inspirator’ will not necessarily have an official leadership title. However, he will be the person everyone goes to for inspiration.
A system often also needs an internal ‘critic’ who will articulate any inefficiencies within that system and a member with more suitable background (maybe someone who was criticized a lot in the past) will pick up this role. This is likely to be your ‘difficult’ guy or girl from the first paragraph. The role of a systems critic is to articulate things that go wrong. The role of a rude and screaming person is to draw attention to emotional tension inside the system that needs to be released.
Because it's never about a particular person, but about the need for a particular role within the system, if you remove one person from the role assigned by the system, in a few weeks he will be replaced by another group member who suddenly starts behaving exactly the same way! He will even probably not realize that himself!
You might guess by now why I insist that the worst managerial mistake you can make is to get rid of or simply ignore a difficult person. Someone who voices a concern is simply articulating information that’s already in the system. If he disappears, the problem persists but will find a different way to express itself.
So what can you do if you come across a difficult collaborator?
First of all, change your attitude and acknowledge that this particular person is not the cause of the conflict, he merely articulates what's going on inside the system, he is a symptom of some inefficiency and the system is trying to self-adjust through him. Changing your attitude will immediately create a shift in the whole situation, because you will stop being emotionally triggered. Remember, you are also part of the system and the way you feel and behave impacts its other parts. If you want your colleagues or clients to be more positive, start behaving positively yourself.
After you unplugged yourself emotionally from the situation, ask yourself – what’s this difficult person trying to achieve for the system (probably, not in a very inefficient way)?
Third, consider other ways to achieve the same thing. When a system doesn’t need a particular role anymore, the person who was playing it disappears – they either move to a different job or change their behaviour.
I have personally witnessed dramatic changes in the behaviour of one very senior client of a large advertising company I was working with that happened within one month. All that the company did was to accept the idea I have just shared with you. After a month, this senior client who used to yell at people came to the agency and said how he really appreciated their work and that they were bearing with him.
When relationship between two groups of people improve, people who were symbols of a conflict step back and get replaced by the others, more peaceful and collaborative individuals.
As they say, you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.