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Dealing with Difficult Behaviour

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


Let’s get one thing straight: as soon as you start to think of a colleague, a team member, a boss or one of your direct reports as a ‘difficult person’ you are lost. There will only be two options: you or they will have to go.

Luckily, there are truly very few difficult people. But that does not mean that you will not have to deal with your fair share of difficult behaviours. It may be the dark side of management, but as night follows day, it will always be there; part of your portfolio of responsibilities.

Exercise 1: Difficult Behaviours

Make a list of some of the types of difficult behaviours you have had to deal with. For each one, ask yourself: ‘what might be at the root of this behaviour?’

This question is crucial, because nice, easy-to-get-on-with people sometimes behave in difficult ways and there is always a reason. And when you have a good idea what the reason is, you will soon have some ideas about how to tackle it.

Three Tips

Here is a way to help you. Ask yourself, truthfully, whether you have ever behaved a bit like that. You probably have at some time; even if it was in your childhood or teenage years. What triggered that behaviour in you.

Another way to think about what is going on is to try and think of a time when someone you know well behaved like this. It was not their usual behaviour, so what was the cause.

My final tip is to imagine a child behaving like that in the playground. What might be going on?

Here are some behaviours to practise on…

Difficult Behaviours

Dealing with the Behaviour

Since it is the behaviour that you want to deal with, be sure to start from a position of respect for the person. Address simple, one-off behaviours as soon as you can and start from the supposition that the person may not be fully aware of their behaviour or the effects it is having. So non-judgemental observation can often be enough to raise awareness and trigger a change.

For longer embedded behaviours, you would do well to prepare in advance. Start with an assessment of what you want from the process – a minimum standard of behaviour, for example – and plan out how you will handle the situation. If you do not have good, strong, objective evidence of the behaviour and its impacts, gather it now.

It is often best to arrange a meeting on neutral ground, like a meeting room. Certainly it must be somewhere that offers privacy. Start your meeting by establishing rapport and letting the person know that you value them. Your temptation will then be to deploy the first killer word…

But

As soon as the word ‘but’ appears, the other person will forget all that has gone before and think ‘okay, here it comes, this is what it is all about.’

This is what it is all about, but you do not want to lose the value of what has gone before. Find a way of bringing up the topic without a but or an implied but. My own favourite is something like this: ‘there is something we do need to discuss.’ ‘Discuss’ makes it a joint endeavour, ‘something’ sets it in the context of a larger ‘everything, and ‘do’ whilst emphasising the point also hints that it is hard for you – which it is.

Head on

Be clear and direct (but not blunt) in your description of the behaviour and the impact it is having, then check whether the other person recognises the situation. This non-judgemental approach takes a lot of the personalisation away.

If they largely accept your observations, they will probably be willing or even keen to deal with the behaviour. Invite them to offer reasons and to work with you to address it. In doing so, you must address the second killer word…

Why

Reasons are important. Unfortunately the most convenient word we have to probe them is ‘why’. And no word gets more personal than ‘why’, so you are likely to get a defensive response. Instead, try better questions like: ‘can you tell me what might be causing this behaviour’ – placing the cause outside of the person.

Sometimes someone will not accept your observations about their behaviour, and maybe even reject the need to address it. This is not acceptable. You need to be firm, clear and respectful in telling them what needs to change and why. Without making threats, set out the consequences for your organisation, for yourself, and for them if if the don’t make the changes.

Do not threaten and do not negotiate beyond the outcome you planned on – instead, suggest you get back together in 24 to 48 hours, when they have had a chance to think through what you have discussed. This puts you in charge, and throws the responsibility for the next move onto them.

The Secret

Handling difficult behaviour is uncomfortable. The secret is to plan, to stay calm, and to maintain equal respect for yourself and the other person. You won’t always be able to change the behaviour and may need to escalate the process (see Let’s sort out poor performance, Part 3: The Alternative). But on most occasions, a light but controlled approach will work wonders.

Further Reading 

The Problem Behaviour Pocketbook

Tackling Difficult Conversations Pocketbook

…and, if all else fails:
The Discipline & Grievance Pocketbook

You may also like the following Pocketblogs:

How to Manage a Challenging Conversation
An earlier part of this series, it offers you a seven step process to help you prepare for your meeting.

How to Understand your Toddler
Actually, not just toddlers… Icek Ajzen’s theory of planned behaviour will help you understand behaviour and therefore some of the levers to change it.

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right
Mediation may be an option to help gain a resolution, and this blog describes how it works.

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The Power of a Single Word

There are some words in our language that seem to have special powers that elevate them above the ordinary day-to-day words.  They are a bit like super-heroes and super-villains, in the world of mere humans.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 29: A man dressed as Clark Kent poses as Melburnians participate in a Guinness World Record attempt for the most number of people dressed in superhero costume at Federation Square on May 29, 2010 in Melbourne, Australia. The event was organised to mark the 75th anniversary of DC Comics. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Because

What would encourage you to do someone a favour? Helen Langer, Arthur Blank and Benzion Chanowitz did an experiment asking 120 students if they could jump the queue to use a library photocopier. The experimenter asked in three different ways:

  1. May I use the machine?
    Giving no reason
  2. May I use the machine, because I have to make copies?
    Giving no real reason
  3. May I use the machine, because I’m in a rush?
    Giving a reason

When the request was a small one – with only five sheets to copy – 60% of the students asked obliged without hearing a reason (Request number 1). With a reason (Request Number 3), 94% agreed. And with no real reason (Request number 2), 93% were prepared to oblige. The reason is clearly not important; what was important was that there was a reason – the students heard the word “because” and that was enough.

Why

Why is like one of those super-heroes who can turn super-evil at times.

The Good:  Ask the question ‘why?’ about a problem enough times, and then ask why about the answers you get, and then keep repeating.  You will almost always find your way to the root cause of the problem.  This is the basis of the ‘Five Whys’ method.

The Evil:  Ask me ‘why did you do that?’ and you will usually get a defensive answer.  ‘Why?’ feels like an attack on our very values that direct our decision making, so we react against the question and rarely give a resourceful answer.  A better question might be: ‘what were your criteria when you chose to do that?’

But

‘I like your new suit, but…’ As soon as we hear the ‘but’, our brain thinks ‘aha – here comes the truth.’ We switch off to what we have just heard, making the first half of the statement almost invisible.  Better to say ‘and’‘I like your new suit, and if I’d have been choosing, I would have preferred a blue one for myself.’

You

Another super-hero/super-villain.  When I talk about you and what you want and what I can offer you, you feel like I am giving you all of my attention.  ‘You’ has the power to make a reader or listener feel special.

When I use ‘you’ in describing a wrong action or assigning blame, I will trigger your defence mechanisms that start to create conflict.  ‘You never do the washing up.’  ‘You make me so angry, when you….’ Better to say ‘I really prefer it when the washing up is done.’  ‘I get angry when I feel I can’t influence…’

So here’s the deal

Pay attention to the words you use – they really do matter.

What other words have super powers?
Contribute yours to the comments section below.

Management Pocketbooks you might enjoy

Impact & Presence Pocketbook

Communicator’s Pocketbook

Influencing Pocketbook

Handling resistance Pocketbook

Tackling Difficult Conversations Pocketbook

Coaching Pocketbook

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 29: A man dressed as the Incredible Hulk poses as Melburnians participate in a Guinness World Record attempt for the most number of people dressed in superhero costume at Federation Square on May 29, 2010 in Melbourne, Australia. The event was organised to mark the 75th anniversary of DC Comics. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

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