The Cost to Others—It’s Not Just All About You When It Comes To Difficult Employees
Some people are extraordinarily tolerant of the pain and suffering difficult people can inflict on them personally. These amazing folks are able to shrug off the stress of difficult people without experiencing physical or mental damage. If you are one of these, I congratulate you, but that doesn’t absolve you from managing difficult people.
That’s because it isn’t just about you. Imagine what happens when you throw a rock into a quiet lake. When the rock hits, it creates a set of circles or ripples in the water that move farther and farther out. As a manager or supervisor, you are at the center of the disruption. But the ripples go beyond you. They carry out further and further in the water. That’s how difficult people affect not just you as a manager, but many others in the organization. In severe cases, those ripples hit other employees with whom the difficult person comes in contact. Not only does a difficult person affect those in immediate contact, but the more difficult a person, the more those ripples affect others—customers, people in the human resources department, and even other department staff members who don’t have immediate contact with the difficult person.
What’s the worst part? Those little ripples aren’t really little. They can hit people like huge tsunami … even people who don’t have to deal with the difficult person directly.
Let’s make this more concrete. Noah, the Prophet of Doom, works for you. At meetings, whenever an idea is suggested, Noah is the first to tell everyone why it won’t work, and why he knows best. If left unchecked, what do you think will happen? Well, people aren’t stupid. Eventually, they tire of having their ideas and their heads bashed with a two-by-four and stop suggesting ideas. The source of new ideas dries up. No new products. No new services. No new improvements. No business!
Apart from the business side, Noah and his dire predictions depress co-workers and others around him.
Regardless of the difficult person’s particular style of being difficult, he or she can have a profound effect on others. For example, difficult people affect others by …
- reducing enjoyment of their work.
- wasting large amounts of their time.
- reducing their productivity and job satisfaction.
- causing them to consider resigning and moving on.
- eating up huge amounts of time in meetings.
- damaging relationships with customers.
- turning other people into difficult people.
Difficult People Are Contagious
The last point deserves a bit more discussion. If you have a single difficult employee, don’t believe that only that person’s behavior is at stake here. A difficult person is contagious. Yes, being difficult is catchy.
I once worked with a person who was extremely
difficult. Let’s call her Donna to protect the guilty.
While very smart, she had little ability to work
with people, and wherever she went she was followed
by a little black cloud. Her blunt rudeness,
tendency to interrupt, and general “Queen-of-the-
Empire” attitude made people mad or just drove
them nuts. Her manager probably spent literally
hundreds of hours fixing up things that went
sour due to Donna’s attitude.
The people around her were generally easygoing and interacted well with each other. However, after years of dealing with her behavior, even the easy going employees started acting difficult, both to Donna and even to each other. That happened for two reasons. First, Donna set a tone of incivility in the workplace. People felt they must eat or be eaten, and adjusted their actions accordingly. Secondly, Donna affected almost everyone everyday, and people just got frustrated. That frustration spilled over into their interactions with others. In the end, the office was overflowing with difficult people.
So, Donna—and difficult people in general—don’t just affect their bosses or one or two people. They affect many, many people around them. Left to their own devices, they can bring real work to a virtual halt, cause good employees to quit and generally make the office a lousy place to be.