Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Communicating more effectively as a job and career skill set 11: working more effective with, or around problem people 2

This is my eleventh installment to a series on what is one of the most important, and also one of the most commonly problematical of all workplace skills: communicating with others, and as an effective two (or more) way process (see Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3, postings 342 and following for Parts 1-10.)

My goal for this posting is to more fully discuss approaches for communicating with and working with difficult people. I began this part of my overall discussion of workplace communications practices and skills in Part 10, leading up in that installment to an acknowledgment that difficult can mean impossible, but that even then it is often if not usually possible to find what in negotiations terms would be called an acceptable “best alternative to negotiated agreement.” If you simply cannot work with someone you have to find an acceptable alternative path forward, and even if that means abandoning what you now know to be an unrealistic and unattainable goal, in favor of one that is achievable.

I also said at the end of Part 10 that I would set aside the issues of impossible and focus on working with people who are simply difficult here, where it can be realistically possible to meet initially desired goals and cost-effectively and at least close to on-schedule. And I begin that with the fundamentals, and with a series of checklist questions.

You find yourself facing a workflow or process breakdown and are concerned that you are facing what you see as avoidable barriers that are being put in front of you by a particularly difficult colleague, or perhaps by a customer or supplier. I will delve into the issues in future postings in another series, of who this is operationally, as they and their position impacts on you and yours. But before even addressing that set of issues, it is important to know more precisely what types of barriers you actually face and where they actually arise from.

• Are you in fact facing a difficult and obstructionist colleague or other stakeholder, or are you simply seeing a person who you have to work with who is at a collision point where a business process breaks down?

This is important. You need to know as fully as possible how and why the processes you are working on have broken down, and whether this is specifically due to the actions or inaction of others, or due to the business processes themselves not working effectively. Your “difficult person” might simply be a potential ally for fixing this problem who is as frustrated as you and who is as caught up in this as you are too. Think of mapping out and understanding in detail how matters have broken down as your essential due diligence, giving you the information and even the proof that you would need for moving forward, and whether you are dealing with a difficult colleague with poor communications skills, or a broken system that needs to be fixed, or that at the very least would have to be bypassed with an exception allowed for, for your task in progress.

Start out giving a possible or even likely problematical and difficult colleague or fellow stakeholder the benefit of the doubt and reach out to them to see if together, you can find a way around the problems that you face. And document you’re doing this and both for what you do and when and for how they respond and when. This is also a part of your overall due diligence effort and can feed directly into and support and justify any remediation or work-around effort that you have to attempt. Get this in writing where possible. And when this is discussed verbally and certainly where important issues and decision points are under discussion, have a witness and certainly for verifying any key decisions or commitments to action that are agreed to. Write follow-up notes and with dates and times noted. And if appropriate, keep your supervisor up to date on what is going on, and both so they will know that you have encountered a problem and that you are attempting to resolve it. I will address the issues that arise when your supervisor or their supervisor is the problem colleague later in my follow-up series on working with difficult people per se, as well as the issues that arise where your supervisor offers to help resolve this, which might or might not mean stepping in as your ally here.

It looks like you are dealing with a problematical and difficult colleague, to be more specific as a case in point, for purposes of this discussion. Two lines of questions immediately arise from that.

• Is this person simply following a repeated and even quite familiar pattern, and obstructing you in your work in what for them is a standard way, or is this behavior novel to them?
• And what precisely do you need them to do or to stop doing, so that you can proceed with what you have to do? Put somewhat differently, what could or at least would you have to do to work around them in reaching your goals if it comes to that?

I would start my notes on addressing these two questions with the first and by repeating one of my Part 1 examples of types of difficult people: “people who cannot make decisions or who never get themselves organized enough to ever really follow through on what they say they will do.” And in this case, I posit that this is really happening here and now as you seek to work with a critically involved stakeholder – a colleague who has to finish a step in a project that you work is fully dependent upon if you are to be able to do it. But it is really out of character and out of pattern for them to behave this way. What is going on here that might be distracting this colleague from doing their work and with their usual efficiency and promptness? Is this colleague suddenly difficult or even seemingly impossible because they are facing an acute problem or even a crisis at home or that is otherwise unrelated to this work at hand? Should your supervisor or theirs be brought in to either help them resolve their problem or to shift them off of this project while they are dealing with their own issues?

Let’s assume for the moment that you are facing a consistently problematical colleague, and not someone who is usually easier to work with but just not now. And I turn to the second of those two questions here and the matter of what precisely do you need them to do or to stop doing. And this brings up two more questions:

• How critically important is the work that they are responsible for doing, for completing this work assignment on time and on budget that you need to do?
• And who else can carry out their part of this overall work? Are they for example the only employee there with an essential set of specific technical hands-on skills needed for carrying through on a step in a project that your work is critically dependent on if you are to be able to do it, or is this something that others could as readily do too?

I could continue this line of reasoning with further questions and discussion, but will do so in my follow-up series that more specifically focuses on working with difficult people per se. For purposes of this discussion and this series, I simply note here that all of this and resolving all of the issues that I raise with these questions, revolves around communications issues.

• And it is vital to always remember that this does not just mean your communicating, or trying to communicate with some difficult colleague or other stakeholder.
• Often when we find ourselves confronted by difficult people at work, we feel we are on our own in this and that we have to resolve it on our own too.
• Others who depend on what you do, and on what you are trying to do here also have reason to enter into this conversation too.
• Those others, also stymied by this colleague and their behavior, can become your allies in finding a resolution to the impasse that you face that will meet your needs.

I have focused on acute breakdowns here as a working example, but problem employees can and do also create immediately lower level but chronically recurring and ongoing problems too. With time these can become just as problematical and even more so as you can find yourself in a bind from them where you do not see intervening support as easy to gain. The same basic issues and responses on your part still apply, starting with documenting what is happening as discussed above, and as your basic due diligence. And I add, the best documentation here, is oriented towards developing a non-confrontational, cost-effective resolution to the problem that your difficult colleague creates for you.

• Whether you are facing an acute crisis-creating problem or an ongoing chronic one, seek to be and to communicate yourself as being the solution to problems here, rather than just a reporter of problems.

I am going to continue this series in a next installment with a discussion of the issues of goals and priorities, and the pitfalls of understating and overstating. In that, I will discuss both avoiding hyping what you do and knowing when others are doing that to you. And as noted above, I will specifically continue discussion of the issues that I have raised here and in Part 10, in a future series. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 and at the first directory page and second, continuation page to this Guide. You can also find this and related material at Social Networking and Business and its continuation page.

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