Audit Advantage: Dealing with Difficult People

Audit Advantage: Dealing with Difficult People Many a time on these pages we have asserted that auditing is people-business; we've waxed lyrical about communication, managing up and down, and building relationships.  We never said it was easy, so what about those times when it all comes down to one difficult individual?  You know the score: someone who just doesn't 'get it', who blocks you, is uncomfortable to deal with, and at the extreme, becomes your veritable nemesis!  This article is about dealing with the people who make your life difficult, not the situations or the processes, but the people themselves.


The smiling assassin: difficult people don't have horns

If you scan the literature on this subject, there is a broad assumption that difficult people are knowingly difficult, driven by malice, antagonistic or just plain nasty.  But in my experience these are not the most difficult people to deal with.  At least with this group you have the power of crowds; it's collectively accepted that these people are difficult, their adversity is not subjective, and so it's virtually unarguable.  You can learn from your work mates (or relatives if you are unlucky enough to have one in your family) as to what patterns of response and behaviour can help you manage these difficult relationships. 

But there are another group of people who specifically make your life difficult. Their recalcitrance is not universal ('what do you mean, Anton in Procurement is a pain, we get on really well!')

'You are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotions, creatures bristling with prejudice, and motivated by pride and vanity'. Dale Carnegie

Much more challenging, is the scenario where the difficult person is only difficult for you. It might be a personality clash, a mutual dislike, raised emotions driven by resentment, jealousy or insecurity, or a misalignment in goals or operating styles.  Whatever is behind the problem, it causes you angst, prevents you getting to where you need to be and requires a particular type of enabler to sort.


Tackling the problem:

  1. Know what you are dealing with. Is the behaviour a one-off (perhaps contextual, presenting under stress) or is it a recurring pattern? This will help you decide whether you need to take a short term tactical approach or whether a strategic approach is more appropriate. Ask yourself: What is actually happening here? In response to what? What do you need to happen to move forward?
  2. Objectivity. Don't take it personally, but it may be personal!  There's not much you can do about this, other than rising above the situation and engaging your brain before your emotions, thinking rather than reacting.  It is also important to understand your locus of control: acknowledge and operate within it.  In the words of Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity prayer: 'grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
  3. Finding a common cause. This could be a point of connection, a bridge, and a shared point of agreement, common values or a mutual goal: 'so we both agree on the fact that this report has to be delivered by the 31st'.This can help in cutting through assumptions on both sides and the human tendency to make judgements about the other party. Neither of you might agree on the adversary's specific views but you should be able to find a common theme as a foundation to developing a way forward.
  4. Align your approach to their style (or chunk size as we say in NLP!). Use what you already know about the person or do some due diligence. If they want detail, give them detail. Find out if their preference is short, sharp, focussed conversations versus deep, reflective, exploratory meetings. Or is it about planned timelines versus adhoc emergent themes?
  5. Unpredictability and U-turns can be deadly but they are unfortunately, not unusual. You may be able to enter into an intellectual, logical discussion to re-influence direction but this is not always possible. Alertness, awareness and regular communication is vital, each coupled with an element of future focus in an endeavour to smoke out potential risk areas.
  6. The sting in the tail: superficially all is hunky dory but you are delivered a devastating, late, low blow or no delivery at all. The first time this happens you can be forgiven for relying on misplaced faith in the individual. Thereafter, you must work hard on an ongoing basis to surface issues and developments that have the potential to de-rail your progress. Not only will this require a degree of very regular communication to appreciate nuances of meaning and flush out early warning signs but you may also have to be rather direct in your enquiries. An interrogative 'what could go wrong here?' might be your relentless refrain.
  7. Negative, fault-finding and nit picking people need to be heard and acknowledged with empathy and respect; but this is not the same as agreeing and accepting. You need to engage at a mutual, problem-solving level and you can usually achieve this with a coaching approach (and a fair degree of patience!) Coaching involves asking a series of open, fact finding questions - what, where, how - to establish a common understanding and a common vision of the solution as well as shared agreement to the way forward.
  8. Recognise bullying. Hostility, intimidation and aggression are never very nice but could they constitute workplace bullying? Experts believe that bullying involves negative behaviour, targeted at an individual, repeatedly and persistently over time.There may well be a formal policy in place which will provide a definition of unacceptable behaviour and take you through the steps to access support.  In the absence of a formal policy, find someone at work that you trust to talk through the situation. This might be someone you know well, like your line manager or a peer, but it could equally be an HR representative or a helpline. You may find with their help that you can manage the situation informally by having a frank discussion with the perpetrator about your feelings around their behaviour towards you. Or it may be that a more formal approach is required via mediation and/or making a formal complaint.


How difficult are YOU?

A colleague of mine will preface any discussion on this topic with the old adage: 'When you point one finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back to you'. It's a sobering reminder of the importance of starting with yourself.  Not only will you not change a difficult person by being difficult yourself but being difficult is highly infectious: 'we are far more liable to catch the vices, than the virtues, of our associates' (Denis Diderot).

So before you take any action in dealing with your difficult person, go back and read the 8 tips again; put yourself in the frame - and that is where the action begins...



Which topic would you like to read about next month? Look over the list of topics in the original Audit Advantage article here and let us know your choice for the next topic we should cover.

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