Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

When expertise becomes an enemy of quality service 3 – interpersonal skills and the challenge of problem behavior in the workplace 1

This is my third installment to a series on expertise, and on what an employee or manager needs to bring along with it, if it is to offer real value and either to themselves or to the business they work for (see Part 1 and Part 2.)

I focused on communications skills in Part 1 and Part 2, and in that same vein turn to consider the crucial role of interpersonal skills here. And I begin this posting’s discussion at a point that anyone who has worked would most likely be all too familiar with: the difficult coworker. This might be a same-level fellow employee on the table of organization who you have to work with and at times at least, seemingly in spite of them and how they behave. This can mean a supervisor who you have to report to but who you come to dread even seeing. This can be a member of your team who reports to you and who you have to work with, and both for your own direct dealings with them and for the consequences of their interactions with other members of your team, and even for their behavior towards others beyond the scope of your immediate team too. This can mean having to navigate the sometimes real challenges of working with a stakeholder to a task or project that you are working on and responsible for, who will own the results of your work with them – and who actively makes this more difficult and for you and for everyone else involved. The possibilities here are not actually endless in number but they are many, and I have only touched upon a few of them here. And when professional dealings are challenged and complicated by interpersonal skills issues and by acting out on the part of one or more involved party, favorable outcomes can become thwarted, and even when this takes place without the further challenges of tight deadlines or need to share crucial but limited resources: circumstances that can create problems and complications even when everyone is showing wonderfully cooperative behavior.

• Someone can be skilled and knowledgeable about the hands-on technical aspects of their work and still be toxically difficult to work with or to deal with and on any interpersonal level: a more strictly professional level included.

My goal for this discussion is not to delve into the details of characterizing and understanding difficult people in all their varied forms. I will offer a book recommendation for that and will limit myself here to some general thoughts on how to at least to limit the harm that dealing with them creates, where I address difficult people and a lack of effective interpersonal skills as a general undifferentiated category.

Who am I writing about your having to deal with, behaviorally? As a partial and superficially categorized list of possibilities that all too commonly present themselves, this includes having to deal with people who are belligerent and whether actively so or through passive aggression, people who are arrogant, deceitful, deceptive and duplicitous, exploitive, discourteous or self-aggrandizing. This list, I add is only a partial compilation of the possibilities here, and each of these labels hides within it a range of toxic possibilities, with active belligerence including within it, for example, behavior patterns such as those of office spies, sadists and the occasional colleague who is seemingly always looking for revenge against at least someone who they have identified as their personal enemy.

Yes, I have had to work with and at times find ways to work around individuals who fit a number of these patterns, as they toxically reach out in their professional dealings with others. And some of them have been very proud of their behavior and its consequences. I am thinking of a specific senior management sadist as I write this, who used to brag that he got the best out of “his people” by browbeating and threatening them and by proving that he meant it by periodically making a public example of one of them.

I originally planned out this posting with specific individual examples such as this particular sadist in mind, and a few other highly dysfunctional people who I had to in effect find ways to wall off to limit their damage. And as noted above, I have planned on offering some general thoughts on addressing the immediate challenges of this topic here too. But more than that, I have also planned on at least briefly delving into the issues of why these people are kept on and why the problems they create are allowed to fester and perpetuate. I will address all of that in this series, but chance has led me to rethink this complex set of issues in yet another way too.

I had a long conversation yesterday with a colleague and friend, who very recently found himself having to resign from a job that he really loved, because the workplace had become so difficult. And the difficulties that he faced did not just come from one single walking behavioral problem, but from the way that multiple coworkers were acting out, and if not from their own issues then in response to the behavior of others. Even when interpersonal skills problems begin with one single individual, their impact can and does spread and others can respond, and both defensively and offensively with what become equally inappropriate behavior patterns of their too. So I will delve at least briefly into that complex of issues too, and into the challenge of breaking these vicious cycles without (hopefully) further breaking morale. These are not situations that are conducive to trust so that goal is not always easy.

With that brief outline of this line of discussion at least briefly laid out, my book recommendation for a general and I add type-by-type detailed analysis of a range of workplace behavior problems is:

• Solomon, Muriel. (2002) Working with Difficult People. Prentice Hall Press.

This book, as just noted, is organized according to the types of toxic behavior shown, but it is also coordinately organized in terms of the workplace relationship that you might have with a problematical colleague (e.g. your relative positions on the table of organization, etc.)

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will offer my above-promised general principles and practices outline of approaches that can be taken in dealing with, and hopefully defusing difficult colleagues, and at least on an immediate here-and-now basis if not always long-term. Then after that I will proceed to address the other issues that I have raised here in this Part 3. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 (with this included as a supplemental posting there) and at the first directory page and second, continuation page to this Guide. Also see HR and Personnel and HR and Personnel – 2.


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