My kids are grown now, but I still recall how effective they were at pushing each other’s buttons when they were young. They knew just how to rile one another up to create a diversion, assuage boredom, or engage in some drama.
As we grow older we learn to ignore most irritants and we get our own button-pushing urges under control. Well, most of us do. Chances are that you work with someone—a co-worker, manager, vendor, or customer—who hasn’t grown up yet. If it’s someone you must interact with on a regular basis, they can make your job harder than it needs to be.
Behavioral dysfunction is a tremendous time and productivity waster in the workplace. Whether you’re dealing with a person who is easily threatened by others, requires huge quantities of attention, is extremely oversensitive or under-sensitive, has an uneasy relationship with honesty, seems incapable of personal accountability, hasn’t learned that discipline is a choice, or some other undesirable behavioral trait, dysfunctional people have an uncanny ability to throw the workplace into disarray and drag others down with them.
In most cases you won’t be able to change these people. So what can you do so you don’t fall down the rabbit hole with them and start looking like part of the problem?
Believe it or not, about 90 percent of managing dysfunctional people comes back to managing yourself.
The most worthwhile thing you can learn is to never take anything personally. Nothing! Unless someone says to your face “I hate you so much that I will do anything in my power to make you miserable,” learn to assume that whatever that annoying person is doing, he is doing it as a result
of his own dysfunction and very likely doesn’t even realize you are affected. Family therapists frequently tell people not to take family members’ behavior personally. If this is true for families, how much more true is it for business associates?
The minute we take someone’s behavior personally, our feelings get involved. We feel hurt, slighted, resentful, or angry. Once your feelings are involved, you’ve been sucked in. Instead, when you experience bad behavior stop and think, “Wow, that guy really isn’t good at expressing himself” or “She’s sort of a disaster, she never gets her work done on time” or even, “I know it feels like she’s yelling at me, but I could be a store mannequin right now, because she’s not aware of anyone but herself.” When you remove yourself from the bad behavior, you step outside the dysfunction. It’s from outside the dysfunction that you are able to manage such a situation.
We tend to think of good communication and collaboration in terms of always meeting others half way. But that’s not accurate. Picture communication as two people, each holding the end of a long rope. The halfway point is clearly marked. Merely adequate communication is when each person goes to the halfway mark and no further. Excellent communication is when each party consistently goes past the halfway mark and sometimes falls short of it; in this way, both parties compensate for each other as needed.
A mildly dysfunctional person may not ever get around to going past the halfway mark, and a highly dysfunctional person probably falls short of the halfway mark all the time. I’m no advocate of keeping highly dysfunctional people in a work environment. My preference is to provide clear and thoughtful feedback about which behaviors need to change and why, along with a little time to work on it. But we don’t always have the authority to do this. So what’s next?
When I was younger, my solution was to seethe and grow resentful. That did nothing for me, and it didn’t get the work done either. So I learned to accept that if I was going to accomplish whatever it was that I needed to accomplish with those folks, I would have to go past the middle with them every time. Since I was no longer taking their behavior personally, it was much easier to recognize that they didn’t owe it to me to change. I just needed to get my work done, and I knew I would feel better if I could move things along quickly and efficiently. Be willing to go past the middle—if not for the dysfunctional person, at least for yourself.
Each of us has some dysfunction. It may not be possible, or even desirable, to purge ourselves of every irritating trait. Some of the traits that define us in the best ways are also traits that show us at our worst. But there is a big difference between a few defining personality traits and chronic dysfunction. Learn to be a good listener, to treat everyone with respect, to be open to criticism, and to be highly accountable. When you see yourself behaving in ways that are less than effective, call yourself out on the behavior and resolve to improve. The more effective you are, the less likely it is that you’ll be pulled into someone else’s dysfunction.
These three tips may seem simple, but they will make a dramatic difference in how you react to the difficult people with whom you work, and in turn how they affect you. After all, if you could make 90 percent of the negative effects of workplace dysfunction go away without having to change anything but yourself, why wouldn’t you?