By Penny McLaren 2015-10-05 21:44:41
When a difficult employee rains negativity, ward off storm clouds with an attitude check for the trouble-maker—and yourself. IT’S THE START OF A NEW WORKWEEK, and you are cheerfully checking off tasks on your to-do list. On this lovely Monday, everything’s sunny. Then, suddenly, a dark cloud appears in the form of that one difficult coworker who, by simply showing up, casts a shadow on your day. Instantly, everything is darker, drabber and feels slightly threatening. As your shoulders tense, you think to yourself, “This job would be perfect if it wasn’t for her.” We’ve all run into our fair share of difficult colleagues, who seem to affect the morale of the entire staff. If only that person would just try to get along, you secretly wish, rather than complaining, criticizing and causing chaos all the time. But here’s a glitch in this scenario: What if, on the other side of the kitchen, there’s another person who looks at you and feels the exact same way? Could you be that dark cloud? It’s something to think about, suggest Bart Christian and Jeff Joiner, two school nutrition management experts who have led training sessions, including at SNA’s Annual National Conference, on dealing with difficult people. “Everybody can be a difficult person at one time or another,” says Arizona-based Christian, who runs a foodservice-focused training organization. “We all have our days and our moments.” That’s why his advice is to “deal first with the person in the mirror.” After all, you’re not going to be very effective in dealing with others who present a challenge if you don’t make time for a little bit of self-examination. The first place to start is to recognize that managing people can be a tough job! “Not knowing how to deal with difficult people is a prime source of workplace stress,” says Joiner, who runs the Ohio-based Jeff Joiner Training, which focuses on management issues. “I ask people in my training sessions to think of the worst day on the job,” he recounts. “‘Was it related to working with food? Were you troubled by whole grains or fresh fruits?’ No one raises their hand to that question. ‘Was your worst day working with difficult people?’ Everyone raises their hands.” Give yourself a break for not being Susie Sunshine yourself when faced with an employee who would try the patience of a saint. Acknowledging this reality can help you clear away some of the dread and anxiety that causes many supervisors to simply avoid a personnel conflict altogether. Next, you can choose how you are going to deal with your problem employee. You can choose to handle it badly—letting her or him provoke you to a poor reaction, including no action, which can hurt your team. Or you can choose to apply a little patience and understanding, getting to the roots of why and how employees can be “difficult,” and determining what you can do to “manage” the situation. If absolutely necessary, you may have to garner the strength and authority to make bigger changes for a cooperative workplace. Appreciate Our Differences The good news, Joiner points out, is that generally speaking, the school nutrition profession doesn’t tend to attract mean people. “There are very few outright jerks in the school nutrition field,” he notes. “Nobody is really outright ornery or mean and, if they are, they don’t stay in the job for very long. As [a profession], school nutrition attracts and keeps those who are enthusiastic about their jobs.” In most cases, you’re just dealing with personality quirks and diversity issues. Often, the source of friction is an inability to understand and respect a person’s cultural differences. Regardless of the source of such differences, when you show that you appreciate personal characteristics, it can go a long way to smoothing out problems. Make time to get to know the personality types of each of your employees. This can help you handle things more appropriately when a tenuous situation arises. According to many management experts, there are four basic personality types in the workplace—all have great strengths and, yet, each can be very difficult to deal with in certain situations. Some employees are drivers—they take charge and just “get it done.” Expressive people are idea-driven, and are always asking “why not?” An amiable employee is chatty and friendly; she or he is always looking for a pal. The analytical type is logical and information-driven, one who needs to know why. There are a number of ways to determine a person’s dominant personality type—and use it to your advantage. Note the questions he or she asks. Observe the way they work when unsupervised. For example, a person who asks a lot of questions is likely the analytical type. You can best communicate with him or her by providing facts, showing a plan and asking your own questions of that staffer. On the other hand, a driver personality is one who will, as the saying goes, ask for forgiveness, rather than ask for permission. You can leverage the strengths of this personality type rather than getting caught up in the wake of their impulsiveness by keeping a list of special projects on hand, ready to assign, to keep them busy and engaged. The Trouble With Some People But not all personnel issues arise from a character asset gone awry. Sometimes you encounter employees who are deeply unhappy and act out their discontent in various destructive ways in the workplace. In his 2015 ANC presentation, “I Think I’m Allergic to Nuts! Learning to Work Productively With the People Who Drive You Crazy,” Joiner identified seven types of difficult employees: ■ The Intimidators: People who bully and intimidate with anger, negativity, tone of voice, mean expressions or just their general demeanor. ■ Mr. or Ms. Obnoxious: People who are starved for attention and do inappropriate things to shock you into noticing them. ■ The Critics: People who are very critical of everything and everyone, except themselves. ■ The Judges: People who are always offering their judgmental opinions on just about everything—whether or not you ask. ■ The Moaners and Groaners: People who always inject a little or a lot of moaning and/or groaning into every interaction. Everything about them says, “Please feel sorry for me.” ■ The Moochers: People who always want something for nothing. ■ The “Most Difficult Person of All”: This is the one who is confident that he or she has complete self-awareness, understands others fully and rarely admits being wrong. (Look long and hard in that mirror to be sure that this person isn’t you!) Understanding the behaviors of difficult employees can, in turn, shed light on how to manage them. For example, with the intimidator, it’s helpful to predict the triggers that make him angry and work to encourage appropriate responses. With critics, says Joiner, avoid falling into an argument you cannot win, because you cannot change their stance. Instead of reacting to criticism, you can say, “That gives me something to think about,” or “We’ll have to agree to disagree.” Time to Take Control “Most of our difficulties on the job come from working with [colleagues], not from interacting with parents or teachers,” notes Christian of school nutrition professionals. “The kitchen staff becomes kind of like a family, and you know who we argue with the most? Family!” Before you tackle your coworkers’ attitude problems, take a close look at your own reactions. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I highly offend-able?’” suggests Joiner. Do you assume that the situation with this colleague will be dismal? Do you go on the defense the instant a conversation begins? “We are our own single biggest challenge,” Christian declares. To face the challenge, when a cranky coworker gets in your face, you must choose positivity. “Not so much for them, but for you !” Christian exclaims. Choose to be nice. Check yourself: Are you are in the habit of reacting negatively to someone who is argumentative? Take a breath and turn the other cheek so that you react with a good attitude instead. Before you know it, you may find you are turning that relationship around. If you give “nice,” odds are that eventually you will reap “nice” in return. Choose to be calm. Day in and day out, we’re faced with situations that leave us frustrated, irritated or outright angry. Maybe someone didn’t clean up their workspace properly or made a passive-aggressive comment about your management skills. You’d be perfectly within your rights to express your aggravation. “But getting upset doesn’t accomplish anything,” notes Christian. “The point is, don’t let it control your day.” Choose to be happy. “Without the first two—being nice and staying calm—I have found that being really happy is difficult,” concedes Christian. If you truly want to have a good day, you can choose to make it that way, in spite of what a less-happy person throws your way. Don’t be surprised if this seems like a struggle—at first. For most of us, it takes some practice! Don’t give in to a stubbornness that you can’t change, even if it’s tempting to insist I can’t control how I respond. That’s just the way I am. “That is not the way it has to be,” insists Christian. “We can all change, adapt and develop new habits. The reality is that an unwillingness to adapt can cost us our relationships, our happiness and, in some cases, our jobs.” Eyes on the Prize Practicing positivity is only the first step in dealing with a difficult person or situation. Christian points to a formula articulated by Jack Canfield, author and originator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul® self-help books: Events + Response = Outcome. “There is only one component of the E+R=O formula that we can truly control and that is the R: our response,” Christian says. “However, if we consider the desired outcome before we respond, then we can often influence what ultimately happens.” First, ask yourself: What do I want to see happen? How do I want the rest of the day or week to go? If I choose to lose control or hold a grudge, will it dominate my day? For most of us, the desired outcome is to make the best of the time we spend at work. With this in mind, Christian says, the next question must be: How can I guide this situation positively? Joiner offers some concrete suggestions for going forward: Learn to listen. You might think you already know what someone is going to say or how they’ll react to work assignments. You’d be surprised, however, at how often you’re wrong when you make such assumptions. Make the effort to listen to your coworker, so that you can gain a better understanding of their point of view. Take responsibility. Don’t react, but do respond—mindfully. Joiner echoes Christian in an insistence that the key to managing frustrating employees is to manage your own response. If you let someone else make you angry, you are putting that person in charge of your emotions. Lighten up. Are things as big a deal as everyone initially perceives? Don’t make it easy for people to get your goat. Stop arguing. Learn to diffuse the situation and not add fuel to the fire. Keep an open mind. Recognize that someone’s frustrating work behavior may be rooted in serious pain. Joiner recounts one occasion when he discovered that a person who was labeled as a “difficult worker” had experienced two recent suicides in her family. “There were horrible things going on in her personal life, to the extent that I can’t believe she showed up for work at all,” he recalls. “What you see of a person is only the tip of who that person is. So you may need to give them a little more slack.” Wait, It’s Not Working! Sometimes, it’s not you who needs the attitude adjustment, concede both Christian and Joiner. So, as a manager, decide when it’s time to address the situation to make the work environment more tolerable for everyone. Change the work group. There are times when conflicts arise less because of one individual’s behavior and more because of a combustible mix of conflicting personality types. “Move the difficult person to a new assignment and what often happens is the individual becomes a stellar employee,” says Christian. Change jobs for everyone. “In a small school or district, people may develop ‘queen-doms,’” says Christian. “It causes jealousy. They say, ‘This is my stuff,’ and nobody else can do that person’s job or use their area or tools.” This calls for cross-training and a job-rotation approach, which usually “works well,” he emphasizes. “Change” the person. While you can’t truly “change” anyone but yourself, you can work with another person to help her or him address problematic behaviors. Face the issue head-on and sit down to discuss matters with the problem employee. Don’t do this in the heat of the moment or when you are still feeling reactive. Schedule a specific time and hold the conversation in private. Review specific examples of how the individual’s behaviors and reactions are affecting the morale and productivity of the entire team. Avoid using the word “attitude,” advises Joiner, because it is too vague. Give the person time to make specific behavioral changes, establishing a definitive period of days or weeks. Be very clear about your expectations and the potential consequences if the individual fails to comply. Follow through at the end of the period. If you’ve seen positive change, acknowledge the effort. If there is no change, move forward on the actions you previously laid out. Throughout the process, establish a paper trail that details specific incidents and discussions. (Tools and tips on documenting performance problems are included in this month’s online extras at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent.) But stay positive about this desired outcome. You can be the catalyst for change, insists Christian. Teamwork First Finally, avoid the “fairness” trap. Many managers try to treat all employees the same, because they equate it to treating everyone fairly. “But people are not the same,” Joiner points out. Recognize the value of treating each individual according to his or her specific way of working or communicating. Fairness comes in being appropriate and objective and keeping the priorities of the entire team top of mind. “My goal in all this has been to help people see that it is possible to do things differently and not always make the first response negative,” says Christian. To change circumstances—and change ourselves—we need to use all the tools we can to get over, around and through difficult situations with other people. “Everybody brings new ways of looking at things in the workplace,” advises Joiner. There’s no reason to suffer under the gray cloud brought on by a difficult person, who not only can make your work life miserable, but also lead to some real issues that can damage the success of the operation. It doesn’t have to go in that direction, though. When we learn how to ward off what could be an explosive or destructive situation, everybody benefits. Keeping the team cohesive helps work to go faster and makes the job more fun for everyone. Penny McLaren is a former editor of this publication and a freelance writer in Vancouver, Wash. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the speaker services of Bart Christian and Jeff Joiner, visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent, as well as their respective websites: www.bartchristian.com and www.jeffjoiner.com. Illustrations by jiunlimited.com. TO YOUR CREDIT: For CEUs toward SNA certification, complete the “To Your Credit” test on page 62. BONUS WEB CONTENT Document, document, document! That’s the advice of school nutrition veterans to novices who struggle with employees who resist all efforts to be productive team members. You can find tips and resources for managing this paper trail online at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazine bonus content. Also head to SN’s online extras to learn more about top-ranked speakers Bart Christian and Jeff Joiner. With a difficult employee: ■ Choose to be nice. ■ Choose to be calm. ■ Choose to be happy With a difficult employee: ■ Learn to listen. ■ Take responsibility. ■ Lighten up. ■ Stop arguing. ■ Keep an open mind. With a difficult employee: ■ Change the work group. ■ Change jobs for everyone. ■ “Change” the person.
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