It’s Not Me, It’s You.
How to handle three types of difficult situations at work
From many years of handling difficult clients, stakeholders and colleagues, it’s natural to develop a thick skin, but also a knack for how to handle a situation or two. Admittedly, there are still times I battle with my need to remain polite and agreeable, and the urge to throw hands. But we move.
I also preface that there are hundreds of difficult situations one can encounter in the workplace, and my ramblings will barely scratch the surface. Fortunately, (or rather, quite sadly), I don’t think my experiences are unique, so there may be some valuable takeaways from this anyway.
I read somewhere once that ‘great people don’t complain, they walk away’. I can resonate with this, and also add that prior to it reaching such a point, there’s many steps we can take to try and diffuse a situation.
Ever had someone who just sends one word responses online? Or perhaps comes across rather blunt? It’s important to recognise that distance between us, be it working from home or being situated on different floors in the same building, can be a recipe for misunderstanding. Everybody has a slightly different style of communicating, particularly online, and sometimes it’s very easy to misconstrue someone’s use of language. In my case, I’m very much a ‘smiley-face-in-emails’ kind of person. I feel it brings down walls a little, and tells the other person — ‘I’m human!’. That said, there have been occasions I then message someone who responds with a significantly more formal approach in their writing, and something about that immediately makes me sit a little more upright. We can very quickly perceive someone with a straight-to-the-point style of writing as stern, but this isn’t always the case. Try and give people the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps schedule a call instead.
The tactic of ‘over-communicating’ is smart when trying to mitigate any misunderstandings, especially as more of us may have shifted to hybrid or fully remote working environments in the wake of COVID. In fact, in the absence of being able to meet people face to face, I remember setting up 15 minute 1:1 introduction calls with as many members of my team as I could, during my first couple of weeks. I made it a point not to discuss work stuff, and to simply get to know the person. To add to this, when discussing anything particularly critical, I’ve always tried to follow a process of first reviewing the topic via a call, then following it up with an email summary, so there’s little opportunity to get the wrong end of the stick.
Encouraging the occasional face to face team event can also be a massive help — here’s a summary of one we held at at Matchesfashion. For some of us, particularly in tech, events like this are often one of the few times we’ll meet in person, and it really does wonders with team building.
Being spoken over
Sadly, I’ve seen this happen in bad company cultures — particularly to those who are female or in their early career. There have been one too many meetings where either a client or colleague openly spoke over me, and I’m not sure to this day if it was something they were aware of, or if it was a blatant act of disrespect. I’d like to think it was the former, but at the time, I remember feeling the inevitable lump in my throat and my face flushed over. I was both embarrassed and annoyed. I felt as though my presence wasn’t respected, and quite often, it threw me off for the remainder of the session. At that point, it didn’t matter how well experienced I was in the topic of discussion, or if I had any genuine ideas I could contribute, I often felt forced to recoil.
Over time, while I can steer the direction of the conversation easier than I used to, when interrupted, my approach has changed slightly. I try to set the example I’d like to see, and respectfully make my point, regardless of the interrupter. In fact, I listened to a recent episode of the Diary of a CEO where Karren Brady explains a scenario where she was on stage, interrupted by a fellow panelist, and she politely waited for him to finish before adding — “one second, I asked my question first”. Ouch. Far more impactful! You can listen to it here from about 46 minutes onwards.
My advice here is to be polite — always polite — but firm in your approach. Be mindful of when this happens to colleagues too and speak up if they don’t, and try to encourage a culture of respect, which is developed only through repeated examples.
Sometimes, people are brilliant at their jobs, but they’re just a bit spiky. They grumble at how many meetings they have, complain about how hard done by they are, and eventually make it impossible to grab their time. I once had a colleague tell me they hated meetings, and proceeded to never attend anything I put in our diaries. Not helpful.
This can be a symptom of bigger things — a ‘meeting when it could have been an email’ culture, unrealistic deadlines that put pressure on the team, and a culture that rewards individuals and not teams. Eventually, this forces people to put themselves and their own workloads first, and collaboration comes last.
Many organisations will have differing views on this, as these types of people aren’t always unproductive. In fact, they can be excellent at delivering, but here’s my take. If someone is great at executing most of their role but is generally unapproachable and difficult for no apparent or logical reason, they’re not a great team player. Being able to work well with people is an art, rather than a science, and is so underrated. Some of the most incredibly intelligent people I’ve worked with have been so gracious when I’ve approached them, and it’s one of the things that make people nice to work with. It’s not that they find it difficult to say no, it’s that they make time to help you in a way that doesn’t prevent them from completing anything urgent on their side.
I’ve tried mitigating this over the years by requesting meetings with a very specific agenda, so the purpose is clear. Sometimes I’ll preface these with an email and a list of things I need or questions I have, with the opportunity to either meet to discuss, or answer via email. We’ve all been in situations where workload is high, and it seems as though meetings are never ending. But just as working with people is an art, so is managing your time. Giving people a choice in how to collaborate with you can be helpful here, as I know when I’m in the zone, I might be quicker answering queries on slack or email.
I recall quite fondly an occasion during my first ‘proper’ job, when I’d been tasked with learning as much as I could about how the main product worked during my first week. I followed some tutorials and did what I could to get up to speed. Having gathered a few questions, I noticed one of my colleagues walking past and asked if he wouldn’t mind answering a few. He immediately pulled up a chair, and proceeded to answer each of the questions I had. After he’d left, one of the colleagues sitting nearby had mentioned that he was the Managing Director. I was a little embarrassed, but so touched that he was gracious enough to be approached, as he might have just as easily asked someone else to assist me. I went on to stay there for a number of years. I’m aware that this sounds just like one of those cheesy stories people circulate on LinkedIn, but the impact it had on me was huge. Be that person.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it, that matters.” — Epictetus.