People: Rubbing Along Nicely

Aggressive, hostile, complaining or silent. Unresponsive, super-agreeable, negative, bulldozing or indecisive: difficult people display wide range of disruptive behaviours. Troublesome behaviour affects many others. An individual may refuse to carry out specific functions, exploit legal loopholes to avoid specific tasks or become involved in irrelevant activity. They may sulk, criticise, argue or be surly to their manager yet laugh with other employees as means of gaining support, joking over behaviour such as consistently arriving at work half an hour late each day.
So how can managers best deal with them? Lower Hutt industrial psychologist Keith McGregor says cranky employee, or boss, has learned how to behave that way over time and often has little desire or ability to change his or her ways. He defines difficult person as someone who doesn’t behave the way we think they should. And that one thought, he says, is very empowering for managers.
“It enables us to separate out the negative emotions we may be experiencing about the person and focus instead on the performance issues by carefully analysing the gap between what should be happening versus what is happening.”
McGregor says managers need to implement structured programmes to prevent such behaviour worsening. Written performance and behavioural standards need to become part of an employment contract, covering behaviours such as general attitude – and manner towards others staff.
It also helps if managers can identify the different types of behaviour that they may consider unacceptable. “Snipers”, for example, may enjoy taking potshots or making sneaky attacks on others. McGregor advises managers to address such behaviour promptly.
They could send powerful message that the behaviour will not be tolerated through comment such as, “At the meeting I noticed you were making sarcastic remarks about Gareth. Can you please tell me what you were trying to achieve by those comments and how you think they helped the situation?”
Managers may also choose to employ affirmation techniques to help strengthen desirable behaviour. comment such as, “I’ve noticed you’ve been much more supportive of new staff over recent months”, even though not 100 percent true, can begin to imprint positive picture of the required behaviour.
Another management tool is paradoxical intention or reverse psychology. McGregor cites the case of manager who was being constantly undermined by staff member. Using the pretext that, as manager, she needed to learn how to cope with being undermined, the manager insisted the staff member continue with her negative comments for the rest of the month. This confused the staff member and resulted in dramatic reduction in her negative comments.
Dealing with difficult behaviour in the workplace can eat up vast amounts of management time and incur significant financial and emotional costs. The key, according to McGregor, lies in remaining emotionally neutral and focusing on the tasks that have to be achieved rather than the personality issues. He stresses the importance of taking the time to hear people out and to identify the root causes of problem rather than jumping to early conclusions.
The narcissistic personality poses particular challenge. These individuals excel at competency-based selection interviews and as result are often fast-tracked into organisations. That’s the view of Jeff Simpson, consultant with Wellington-based Ethos Group, who says such people often show confidence and high levels of competence across broad range of tasks.
“The leaders amongst them go on to be very transformational in society. But that confidence can be very big red herring which hides deep insecurity. They don’t always plan well for company’s future. Often self absorbed, they are seemingly unable to reflect on their personal behaviour. more mature person would demonstrate not only employee confidence but, in addition, carry their intellect with humility.”
For his PhD, Simpson studied 82 commerce graduates during the early stages of their careers. Through psychometric testing and other measures, he found that 14 percent of the graduates showed evidence of narcissistic traits. Narcissists often construct an “idealised self image” because they appear to lack an ability to appreciate realistic feedback.
“They responded incredibly negatively to negative criticism of themselves,” he says, “like stroppy teenagers or four year olds in the office. They were not people who performed well with others, and within about six months of taking up their employment, they were the lowest-performing group within their companies. From therapeutic perspective, they are the least likely to seek help.”
Simpson believes there are now more narcissists in society than there were 20 to 30 years ago. “That’s because society values them highly and they can be charismatic and empowering. But they often fall short of their own claims about themselves.”
He is critical of existing recruitment systems which are not yet mature enough to identify narcissist at an interview. Faced with trying to identify such characteristics when interviewing job candidates, he suggests managers try asking: “Why would I not like working with you?” Or: “Why would I not agree with the situation you proposed?” M

Margaret Inge-Frost has worked across mass media as freelance journalist and broadcast for number of media outlets. [email protected]

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