How to Deal With ‘Difficult’ Employees

When employees aren’t happy, customers aren’t either.

August 31, 2012

Too often, organizations promise satisfaction to external customers—and then allow internal politics to frustrate their employees’ good intentions to deliver.

Customers aren’t the only ones who seek quality service; so do your credit union’s employees and leaders. Inevitably, “difficult” people will creep into your workplace, disturbing the organization’s workflow and harm service quality.

That’s why Ron Kaufman stresses the need to provide “uplifting service” internally at all times—and especially when difficult situations arise.

“There are no difficult customers; there are only difficult customer situations,” says Kaufman, author of “Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet.”

“Similarly, there are no difficult coworkers,” he continues. “There are only difficult coworker situations. And once you start to think differently about how to manage those difficult situations, everyone can be more satisfied and better served, including you, your colleagues, and most importantly, your customers.”

Kaufman advises organizations to use difficult situations to build an uplifting service culture. They can do by:

Assessing the situation carefully. Is your colleague deeply upset or simply having a bad day? Is he/she angry about an ongoing internal issue, or is it a one-off situation like a presentation gone wrong?

Is this a process problem that persistently provokes, or a one-time irritation that will naturally fade away? “Once you have assessed the situation,” Kaufman says, “you can determine whether the person just requires a little personal attention from you—or whether a larger plan must be created.”

Shifting your perspective. Stop thinking of your colleague as “difficult” and start thinking about the difficulty he/she is experiencing and how you can help. What is this person concerned, disturbed, or upset about that’s leading to the difficult behavior?

Once you know this, you can approach the issue with more compassion, generosity, empathy, and patience. This is far more effective for both parties than concluding that another person is difficult or is overreacting.

“You never really know all that is going on with another person, with his family’s health or financial situation,” notes Kaufman. “You don’t really know what triggered this emotionally upset moment. Therefore, you can choose compassion for this person instead of judgment, and exercise empathy.”

Working on the problem together. “Difficult” people often behave that way because they’re trying to get something they need. They may think the only way to get colleagues’ attention is by outwardly showing anger.

But the best way to get better service is to be a better customer. The same goes for working with colleagues.

“Let your colleague know—as subtly as possible—that being upset, angry, or ‘difficult’ isn’t the best way to get what he or she needs,” Kaufman suggests. “Start by saying, ‘I care. Help me understand what you are concerned about.’”

This often will diffuse the person’s anger and allow both parties to find a solution.

Planning how you’ll work together. Write down what actions each of you will take to resolve the situation.

“Working this way creates a culture of colleagues taking action to create value for each other,” Kaufman says. “It takes emotion out of the equation and creates a platform where people can work more effectively with each other.”

Modeling the right behavior. One of the best ways to make positive behavior part of your company culture is to be a role model. Employees at every level in the organization can do this. Eventually, your colleagues will see how you handle difficult situations and how well your approach leads to positive action.

“When others see that problems don’t need to be painful and that emotions don’t need to be escalated, they’ll realize that ‘difficult situations’ don’t need to consume all of your energy,” Kaufman says. “As more people inside your organization take this approach, they’ll recognize this is what the culture is becoming and this is what the company really is. People will see that this approach works, and everyone will want to take part.”

Visit Kaufman’s website for more information.