Reflecting on a bad working relationship

10 February 2012

We've all had to deal with difficult people at work, but few of us know the best way to deal with them. Philomena Hayward offers some help.

Do you work with someone who really presses your buttons? They take credit for others’ work, always find fault, are always talking about themselves, undermine you at every opportunity. Ring any bells? No matter how positive you might be feeling they somehow manage to trigger you so that you end up feeling irritated, annoyed, withdrawn, upset.

What if the person is your boss? Or a team member you manage who never listens, or the colleague who always seems to put you in a bad light? Difficult people are everywhere, whatever the organisation.

If you want the situation to change, though, you have to do something about it. Perhaps you’re reluctant to confront these kinds of situations — you don’t like conflict, you want to be liked. But the reality is that it won’t get better and can get worse with misunderstandings and resentments simmering under the surface that can erupt inappropriately. Poor working relationships can be a source of genuine stress not only for the individual involved but for everyone in their team.

So having decided you really do have an issue, what to do? The place to start is you. Are you sure the other person is really the problem, could you be overreacting? Have you always had difficulty with the same type of person or behaviour? Whether it’s a peer, your boss or a member of the team you lead, understanding your own impact on the situation means you can do something about it — you can’t change someone else but you can do something differently.

Try to keep your emotions out of it as much as possible. Ask yourself two questions: what are the facts in this situation and what’s the story I’m telling myself about those facts? Making this distinction allows you to stand outside the situation and be more objective, rather than simply reacting. Separate yourself from your emotional reaction and ask yourself what you would do when at your best.

Another useful approach is to view the situation through the eyes of the person who triggered you. Counterintuitively, one of the most powerful ways to take control of the situation is to find a way to appreciate where the other person is coming from.

For example, a client of mine had a real issue with a team member he perceived to be lazy and slow. In fact, this director was not comfortable delegating and expected his team to undertake tasks in the same way that he did. This meant he was constantly finding fault where really there was none, it was just a different approach to prioritising and handling the job. By shifting focus back to the more strategic aspects of his role the director is now better able to let go of the detail and the team member feels more appreciated and is therefore more productive.

The truth is, however, that sometimes your worst fears about another person turn out to be true. You may even have confronted the person directly and with objectivity, but the issue hasn’t been resolved. So you may decide to escalate matters within the organisation or simply choose to move on or, as a manager, to move a team member on. Sometimes that is the only solution but it is important to consider other approaches first. Once the team member begins to understand the impact they are having, the next step may well involve helping them through training or coaching to address the issue, assuming they are someone of value to the organisation.

I recently worked with the MD of a small business who was having difficulty with a key team member who had played a significant role in winning a big contract. The individual was not turning up for meetings, calling in sick and when she did come in was working to her own agenda.

With support and guidance the MD realised she had given her subordinate too much power in the sales effort and was struggling to reign her in. She sat down with the team member and expressed her concerns and restated her objectives and role. Ultimately however, the individual was managed out of the business — the behaviour didn’t change and she became an increasingly disruptive influence with the rest of the team. But if all else fails, an individual leaving the organisation may be the best outcome for all concerned.

Not tackling these “difficult people” is a disservice to the individual, other employees and the success of the organisation.

Philomena Hayward leads Hayward Development Partnership. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a leadership coach.

When you can't stand it any more...

Deal with it You must address the situation because it will not go away and may get worse.

Review your role in the situation Are you doing something that triggers the other person? Is your leadership style a factor?

Consider the facts Try to be objective about the situation before launching in and don’t act on gossip or rumour.

Why do they act like that Try to understand what is motivating the other person.

Plan your approach and confront the problem It helps if you focus on the behaviour, not the person.

Back to basics: Contract formation

A question I am frequently asked is: “Do I have a contract?” Unfortunately, the answer is not always straightforward.

Essentially, for a contract to come into existence, an offer must be made and that offer must be accepted with what is known as “consideration”. In addition, the parties must have intended to be bound by a legal obligation to perform the contract. In a commercial context, this latter requirement is not normally a problem.

While these requirements look simple, disputes over whether a contract has come into existence are fairly common in construction and the issue is critical when it comes to adjudication because if there is no contract, there is no right to adjudication.

The offer must contain the basic terms of the agreement in question. An offer that says “I will build a house for you for a price to be agreed” is not one that would give rise to a legally binding contract, because not all the key terms have been agreed.

The offer must be accepted before it expires — an offer that states it is open for seven days cannot be accepted on the eighth day. In addition, if the offer is rejected, the other party cannot have second thoughts and decide to accept it. The rejection cancels/extinguishes the original offer.

Crucially, acceptance must be for the full terms of the offer. If acceptance comes with additional terms, such as a change in price or additional conditions, this does not amount to acceptance, but is a counter offer which the original party can choose to accept or reject.

Acceptance must be communicated to the party making the offer. An obvious example is in writing or orally, but acceptance can also take place by conduct, such as starting work on site.

By Stuart Thwaites, associate in the construction law at Midlands law firm Wright Hassall tel: 01926 884690 email

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