The Art of Working With Difficult People

Someone once said: ”I like difficult people because that means they're perfectionists and they're passionate.”

That is a nice turn of phrase and an interesting perspective on a potentially difficult situation. I like that. But, let’s just be honest for a second, no matter your level of experience, no matter the industry you are working in, you have had to work with difficult people, and no matter how nice it is to know you are working with passionate perfectionists, it can still be frustrating, stressful, and a major bummer.

Some people are not easy to work with.

There is a book, written by Ayn Rand, called “Fountainhead,” about an architect who refused to compromise his vision of what a building/house should be/look like. After years of being prosecuted and belittled for being a “passionate perfectionist” by bureaucrats and no-talent architects, he comes into his own and builds a true monument to his vision.

The title, “Fountainhead” is in reference to Rand’s provocative idea that an individual’s ego is the fountainhead of all human progress. I understand that the experience of reading that book has been very formative for many people. They see in the main character someone who refuses to dilute his ideals and was willing to suffer and be persecuted for his life’s philosophy. Some see it as a strong statement on individualism, integrity, and principled living; others, not so much.

I read the book when I was older, in my 40s, and while I admired the hero and could only hope that, when the time comes, my fortitude in standing up to the forces of oppression, sexism, and inhumanity could match his determination, I also remember thinking: “Man, this guy has a huge ego – this guy would be a major pain to work with!”

I understand that the book is more of an allegory and should not be taken literally, but as I was reading it, I kept cringing because I saw so many chances for the hero to improve his life and the lives of others around him if only he was willing to listen and compromise. I totally understand we should never compromise our integrity or humanity, but…the type of view one gets from their window should be negotiable with an architect.

In our society of political correctness, we shy away from making statements that might have a negative connotation and thus offend someone. However, hiding behind political correctness is counterproductive. Let’s just face the truth and be real: there are people who are difficult to work with.

Period.

I don’t think anyone starts out as a difficult employee.  Sure, some folks have a character that gets in the way of working with others. Maybe they are easily rattled and explode emotionally, or they quickly lose their nerve during stressful situations and as a result “melt down.” Of course, there are workplace policies that don’t tolerate physical or verbal abuse, but what about more subtle subversions?

Someone rolling their eyes every time you come up with an idea? Someone giving you one status and a different status to someone else, undermining the collaborative process? Someone refusing to take responsibility for their actions and always blaming others for things that go wrong? Someone who, even though they are being paid a fair wage to do their job, somehow have to be inspired, or monitored (read “babysat”), to get their job done? Or even something as simple as someone who talks too much about non-work related topics during the crunch time at work?

I have worked as a tutor, lab assistant, and an engineer for the last 30 years and every job and project I’ve ever worked on, I encountered difficult people – heck, I am sure on a couple of occasions, when my insecurities acted out, I was the “difficult” person in the room!

Regretfully, time has not solved this problem. To this day, I continue to encounter people who are difficult to work with. However, as I gain more experience working with people, I am approaching difficult situations in a way that I feel helps me stay positive and always moving forward.

How, you ask?

Never Play Games.

No matter the set-up, I refuse to be sucked into any “drama” at work. There is no place for jealousy, resentment, discouragement, gossip, or negativity in our work – and, truly, in our lives. We all get paid to do a job, and I expect that everyone will put in their hours for their paycheck (including myself). My professional life is not “Game of Thrones,” and I don’t need to be a wily manipulator to achieve my goals.

I always try to deal with facts as we know them, and when there are no facts, I relate the situation as honestly as I see it (keeping in mind that there are conflicting views of reality all around, and all options need to be considered).

A footnote here is that “strategy,” or the process of trying to look ahead and anticipate potential technical, budgetary, and scheduling challenges and tradeoffs, is required for any successful project and is not considered by me to be any sort of “manipulation.”

Always Stay Positive.

This means different things to different people, but it is simply that. It’s easy to spiral down into bad mouthing a company policy or commenting on negative aspects of someone’s personality.

Don’t.

Try to be an example for the people around you. No need to be a cheerleader for the things that ring false to you, but be positive when dealing with everyone (not just the people you happen to like). Be a force for good.

The View From the Top.

Different folks have different areas of responsibility. The supervisors and managers are supposed to be not only technically competent, but also be able to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their workforce. A “passionate perfectionist” personality should be recognized and assigned a function in the organization where it will contribute to the overall progress in the group.

In my experience, “passionate perfectionists” tend to be very detail oriented and are very self-motivated, thus they need to be assigned an appropriate function. Your supervisor is clueless and doesn’t recognize the situation? Help them. Help make your organization a healthy, functioning group. Again, be a force for good!

Life’s Too Short.

I know it sounds like a cliché – and it is a cliché – but it’s a cliché because it’s true.

Life is too short to be wasted on arguments and pain that can be avoided. Like the Ancient Greeks (who came up with the word “drama”), I believe that our lives are already full of misunderstanding, pain, and loss, so why add to it during your work hours?

Approach every work opportunity with the full experience that you have previously gathered and with the expectation that you will get the best support possible from your group. If you don’t get the full support, please go back to steps one through three above.

Oh, and by the way, even though I believe “Fountainhead” is not great literature, I do believe it is a worthwhile book to read, and I guarantee that the ideas presented on Objectivism in the book will spur spirited discussions between you and your friends.

Personally, as you can probably tell, I partially disagree with the premise of “Fountainhead” (as I do with most philosophies ending in the “ism”). It is my belief that human ego has been responsible for some of our great achievements, just as it has been responsible for some unspeakable atrocities inflicted by humans on other humans.

It is my personal opinion that the key to saving our planet lays in all of us working together and collaborating.

To Manage, or Not to Manage, from the Perspective of a  NASA Engineer