Tuesday 2 November 2021

How to deal with a difficult colleague at work

I am sure we've all been there at some point. You find yourself working with a difficult colleague. There are all manner of behaviours that can be described as difficult, but I am referring to people who seem to have a personal agenda against you, for no apparently rational reason. It happened to me on a couple of occasions in my career working as an IT Consultant. The first time was when I was working for a very large telecoms company in the mid 1980's. I was lucky to have achieved a management position in the organisation by the age of 24. I had no experience of managing people, but I was lucky in that my family had run businesses for many years and they would offer sensible advice when I found myself having problems. The team I was managing was responsible for implementing and running a new national ATM network, which our company had the contract to deliver. It was a high profile project and I got the job as my previous employers were the software supplier and I was only one of three people in the UK who had any experience of the software. I had installed it on the companies in house system. The technology was new to our company and they offered me a management post as they felt it was vital to ensure the project was successful.

Our team worked very hard and as the go live day approached, there was a degree of nervousness, although I had every confidence in what we were delivering. The whole concept of sharing ATM's was new in the UK and the members, which included many major building societies and smallerbanks, saw it as a key plank in their strategy to take on the established big four banking giants. TV advertising campaigns were planned and we couldn't afford to screw up.

I was very focussed on making sure that the team of operators knew how to run the system 24 x 7 and the technical staff new how to manage and use the software. I though all was going well, until one day, as I was leaving the office, I bumped into another member of staff who was entering the office. I gave them a friendly nod and said 'Hello'. To my shock, the person replied 'We are not in the office, don't talk to me, I can't stand you and I will do everything I can to see you fail here'. I was completely gobsmacked. I'd not had any problems with this person before, they had always seemed friendly. I decided to do what I always did at the time when there was a work issue. I went around to my parents and asked my father for some advice. My father had a lot of experience of dealing with people. He had been an officer in the RAF during the second world war and had run a car repair business for several decades. Many of his staff were the local hoodlums, but he was a strong character and kept them all in order.

He suggested that we adjourn to the Mill Hill Services club, where he was a member for a pint. This usually meant that he was going to give me some advice that he thought my mother would disagree with. After beers were procured he said "How old is this fella?". I replied "About 40 I guess". He then said "How long has he been with the Company?". I replied "A long time".  He then said "And he's at a lower grade than you?". I replied "Yes". He then said "Well he's jealous that you've swanned in and are telling him what to do". On reflection that seemed quite obvious. He then said "Can he do your job?".  I replied "No". He then said "Is he any good at his own job". I replied "He's steady with the stuff he knows, but doesn't pick things up very quickly". My father laughed and said "You'll come across a lot of characters like that, they are not much good and resentful of people who are." I then said "So what can I do about it?". He replied "Well those sorts can be hard to deal with especially in big bureaucratic organisations". He added "In the air force, we'd send them on courses and then get them transferred to other jobs where they could use their new skills, but I guess that's not an option." He then added "First thing is he said he doesn't like you, that's fine, many people hate their boss so forget about that. If he says anything else just say 'I'm your boss, you are not supposed to like me, you are supposed to do what you are told and if you don't like it find another job" He then said "But he also said that he'd do everything he can to shaft you. The only way he can do that is to damage the companies business. So what you need to do is take him to one side and explain that the only way he can undermine you is to damage the company and if he does that, then he will find himself subject to disciplinary proceedings. Thank him for informing you of his plans. Inform him that you've not mentioned this to HR, but if there is any evidence of him seeing out his threat, you will have no choice but to take action to protect the company business." He then added "Remember that every decision you make with regards to your staff, has to be framed on the basis of what is best for the company".

The next day, I followed the advice. I worked until the late shift arrived and then took him to one side and said exactly what my Father advised. The reaction was not good. He snarled "Just who do you think you are talking to me like that? I've been here for years and I'll be here long after you've gone". As my father advised I replied "Let me remind you of who I am. I am your boss in this office. Whether you like me or not is irrelevant, your jobs is to do what I instruct you to. The company has appointed me to do that and if you have a problem with that, fine, I am not employed to be your friend". I then said "Tell me, can you do my job? Do you know how the software works, do you know anything about ATM systems". He replied "No". I then said "Then you really don't have any reasonable grounds for resenting the fact that I am running the project do you?". He replied "It is not right that someone can walk in and get a job that people who've been here years should have got".  So I said "Tell me who else in the department should have got my job andn who else could do it?". He then said "No one, but you should not be a manager". I then said "Ok, tell me, as a manager what mistakes have I made. What should I have done that I haven't". He replied "You don't get it, its not what you are doing. It is the fact that you've walked in and other people have been here for years and have not been promoted". So I said "Ok, so you don't like me, you are jealous because I've done well, you admit that I have the skills to do the job and you can give no criticism of my management skills". At that he said "I can't stand jumped up ***** like you who think you are better than the rest of us". I replied "That is your opinion and you are entitled to it. Do your job and we'll be fine, I don't want a birthday card. But if I find you've done anything at all to undermine me, the next chat we have will not be private".

About four months later, the project had gone live and our group was recognised as having done an exemplary job. As was the way with the company, I had to give the staff appraisals. This meant typing up my opinions of the various members of staff and giving them marks out of five. The project had been fraught, and as it was running, the stress levels had subsided. When I thought about it, I realised that the person I had a problem with had actually done a very good job. I had watched him like a hawk, but he'd been very professional. As a result I gave himself an excellent appraisal. When I gave him this and we had the 'conversation', he expressed surprise. His first comment was "are you trying to get on my good side now". I replied "No, I gave you an honest appraisal of your work. All of our problems have been raised in private, and have not affected anything. I will give you one piece of advice. When you focus and get on with your job, you are very good. It seems to me that the reason that you haven't got on is because you've rubbed people up the wrong way and are seen as difficult. If you put that to one side, you'd probably have got what you wanted years ago". After that, I had no problems with him

I learned that when you are dealing with difficult people, the best approach is to be professional and focus on how the issues affect the business. Do not get dragged into personal issues. Toward the end of my IT career, I was doing some work for a bank and found myself on the other end of a difficult project manager. It was pretty clear that the guy didn't like me. As a technical consultant, he would ignore my advice then blame me when things went wrong. Fortunately by this time, I had the experience to figure out how to deal with such people. The guy had the habit of sending long, withering emails demanding information half an hour before the weekly project planning meeting. He would then berate people, usually me, for not doing what he'd just asked them to do. I am fortunate that I can type quickly (years of practice for writing a blog). I would immediately respond with a full summary of what he asked. 

At one meeting, with all sorts of people attending, he launched into the usual tirade. I then said "But I sent you a response to all of this when you emailed me. It is all explained, didn't you read it?" He responded "I don't have time to read everything". I probably shouldn't have, but I responded "Surely if it was important enough to raise here, it was important enough to read the email you asked for, which had all of the points you raised covered".  I learned to respond to everything he asked, be it verbal or by email, with an email and to copy in all stakeholders. At one meeting, he suggested that this was being done to undermine him. I responded that I thought he'd be pleased to have a full response to the points raised and have it shared with all business partners. I then asked what was contentious or undermining in the email, the answer, of course,  was nothing. My colleague had dug himself into a large hole and didn't have a leg to stand on. As the project was a high risk project, affecting the organisations key business, the awkward individual was quicky replaced with a far more professional individual. It transpired that the individual I had issues with was suffering from stress due to the project being a far more difficult management task than anything he'd previously managed and he was simply seeking a scapegoat for when it all went wrong. This only came out a long time after the event, but it vindicated my approach.

So to sum up, the key takeaways from these experiences are.

1. Keep calm and seek advice from someone with experience who you trust.
2. Separate personal and professional issues and make sure you frame any issues or complaints you may have in terms of how they affect your companies business. 
3. Keep and audit trail of your actions and the actions of the other party.
4. If someone is behaving in a hostile manner, ensure that you have a reasonable response to hand, if at all possible.
5. If you get unreasonable requests made at short notice, make sure that, make sure you have a note of when the request was received and get a date for when the response is required. 
6. If someone is making your life difficult it is more likely to be because they are having problems rather than because of anything you have done.

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