Powerful Approaches To Help You Work With Difficult People Who Frustrate You

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

Sometimes it feels like the workplace is where the most difficult people are. It’s hard to find lasting solutions to the feelings of stress and tension that come from difficult personal dynamics. This can be true even when we share a commitment to a common purpose, whether that’s designing the best possible product, taking care of customers or disrupting traditional ways of doing things. 

According to Amy Gallo, a Harvard Business Reviewpodcast host and the author of Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People)our expectations of finding a sense of purpose and meaning at work, combined with confusion about how much of ourselves we’re supposed to bring to work, can set us up for disappointment. But there are structural and personal approaches we can take to reduce tension and get along better with the people we find difficult to deal with.

Nobody’s Perfect

“We show up as flawed, complicated human beings,” Gallo said in a recent conversation. “I think we’ve done a real disservice by thinking of work as an emotionless place.” Work is not just a place where tasks get done. More and more, it requires collaboration, making it hard for individuals to keep separate from each other.

But because Boomers and GenXers were taught to check their emotions at the door and just get the job done, they can be frustrated and confounded by newer generations who believe they’re supposed to be authentic, emotions and all. If you’re trying to be emotionless in collaborative settings, says Gallo, “You may be rude to other people, you’re going to rub up against other people, you’re going to have friction. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s very bad when you don’t acknowledge that you’re having an emotional response to it.”

In today’s workplace, many people from older generations see messy human behavior as a drag on productivity—they came up believing we shouldn’t have to be exposed to people’s quirks and peculiarities. However, says Gallo, “The expectation that work is going to be less [emotionally] complicated sets us up for some of the worst interactions at work, because when things get complicated, as they often do, we start labeling [challenging or frustrating] behavior as unprofessional and placing blame.”

First Steps For Working With Difficult People

Gallo recommends that organizations develop explicit organizational norms regarding what constitutes appropriate behavior and how people should treat each other. Though these will be different for each workplace, they should include guidelines for things like timeliness, scheduling and convening meetings and expressing disagreement. It’s crucial to specify these norms clearly because individuals don’t naturally have the same perspectives about what constitutes good behavior.

“If I was setting up an organization,” Gallo says, “the first thing I would do is acknowledge that we’re going to disagree, we’re not going to see the world the same way. And then I would have conversations around ‘How do we build trust? How do we resolve conflict when it comes up? What are our expectations for how we will treat others?’ We shortchange those conversations because we assume that everyone feels the same way about those issues [as] we do, or we assume it will be too hard to agree.”

Differences Have Business Value

Research shows consistently that heterogeneous, diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams. We don’t need to like everyone we work with, Gallo notes; in fact, we can actually feel more comfortable with difficult people if we acknowledge that not all work relationships have to feel good and that transactional work relationships can still be productive. Effective people “accept that they’re not going to see eye-to-eye on lots of things and they are going to fight, and that’s okay,” she says. “It’s about howyou fight, not whether you fight. If you want all your relationships to be the same as [the one with] your work BFF, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

Once you’ve accepted that your relationships will vary widely and know you can handle the differences, you can benefit from what Harvard professor Linda Hill calls “creative abrasion: the ability to establish a marketplace of ideas to generate, refine, and evolve a multitude of options through discourse, debate, and even conflict.” Differences of thought and perspective don’t have to be focused on the people who think differently; they can be purposefully directed toward achieving a better work product.

Although it’s not necessary or productive for everyone on the team to be the same, or for everyone to like each other, Gallo notes that it’s helpful if each person feels connected to at least a few other people on the team. People bounce back from setbacks faster and are more creative and forthcoming, she says, when they can say, “I really respect my team. I get along with them. I see some of them as friends.” 

Coping With Frustrating Relationships

Given the variety of relationships we may have at work, Gallo recommends noting our own reactions and creating personal boundaries to balance the tension of difficult interactions with the need to get the work done. For example, you could make a plan to go to lunch and decompress right after having a meeting with someone you find upsetting; in a hybrid environment, you could have that meeting on video rather than in person and take a break to relax afterward. She recommends “focusing more on the things that give you pleasure and satisfaction and fulfillment than this one relationship, [like] listening to your favorite song before the meeting and then when you’re done, calling a friend who cheers you up—anything that creates a barrier around the negativity so you’re not feeling it so intensely.” 

When a challenging relationship or conflict persists, and you haven’t resolved or managed it yet, you might consider escalating to some authority you believe will help restore order for you. Before you do, though, Gallo cautions, “Figure out if there is someone who has the power, motivation, and skill to do something about it.” But if an ongoing situation is really doing damage to your wellbeing, rather than hoping the other person will leave, you might consider finding another job. Even if you eventually decide not to leave, simply revising your resume and activating your network can “give you a sense of agency when dealing with a difficult colleague who makes you feel powerless. That alone could start healing some of the trauma and harm that this relationship has caused.”

There will always be at least a few difficult people at work. But by maintaining our boundaries and recognizing that we don’t need to have deep affection for them to do good work together, we can have more productive workdays and feel better the rest of the time, too.

Onward and upward —
LK

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