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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Difficult People

Reading Time: 4 minutes

There’s a well-thumbed copy Stephen R Covey’s 1989 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, on my bookshelf. And my bookshelf is clearly not untypical given that the title’s sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. But where’s the best-selling self-help book on the habits of difficult people? There certainly isn’t one in my study. Which is odd given that difficult people create so much heartache in the workplace and have such a negative impact on health, wellbeing and productivity. So here’s my modest contribution to making the world of work a better place.

The list is by no means exhaustive (but then 101 habits of highly difficult people isn’t quite as catchy and, in any case, I’ll need something to write about next week). It’s perhaps best thought of as the habits or traits that difficult people will use to justify their behaviour when somebody (perhaps you) complains about it.

1. Who me? The deniers…

“It wasn’t me,” “I didn’t do it” and “I wasn’t there” are three favourite refrains of deniers – those who refuse to believe they’ve done anything wrong when it’s clear they have. They use their denial to imply you’re unjustified in confronting them about their behaviour in the first place. And in denial they find justification for continuing the very behaviour you’re complaining about.

2. Mountains out of molehills. The minimisers…

Unlike the outright deniers (see above) minimisers will concede you’ve got a point but then, in the next breath, say you’ve got it completely out of perspective. Your hurtful bullying is a minimiser’s harmless bit of fun. A minimiser will suggest you’ve lost your sense of humour and that you take life too seriously. They’ll often try to co-opt others to their cause, turning to a colleague and imploring them “you found it funny didn’t you?”

3. Talk to the hand because the face ain’t listening. The selective hearers…

When my son was young and, like mum’s the world over, I had to tell him some unpalatable truth (normally about his homework) he got into the habit of putting his fingers into his ears and going la la la la la. Well I’m pleased to report he’s grown up. But there are plenty of people in the workplace who, in effect, haven’t grown up and when we as their bosses or colleagues have to tell them some similarly unpalatable truth will block their ears or pretend not to have heard. These are my so-called selective hearers – the co-workers who choose to hear only what they want to hear and are deaf when it comes to what they don’t want to hear.

4. You think you’ve had it bad. The woe is me-ers.

When my mother died my friends were brilliant. They offered help. They put their arms round me. But most of all they listened. A few (and I guess they weren’t proper friends after all) launched straight into their own grief as if talking about how much more awful their situation had been would make me feel better. Workplace woe-is-me-ers exhibit similar behavioural traits. If you’re suffering (even at their hands) they’re suffering so much more. And they’ll do their best to let everybody know that, in an attempt to make you feel guilty. You’re a victim but I’m a bigger victim is their play.

5. It isn’t my fault guv. The blamers…

Blamers are always on the look out for somebody or something else to transfer the responsibility for a situation somewhere other than on their own shoulders. A difficult middle manager will often blame those above them for imposing an unreasonable work schedule. Or those below them for failing to pull their weight. “Sorry,’ they’ll say, “but there’s really nothing I can do about it” even though you know they can. And, deep down, they know that you know they can.

6. Have you looked in the mirror recently? The shamers…

Difficult people are rarely, if ever, willing to take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. But what I call the shamers category will be quick to suggest you should. “You need to examine you’re own behaviour before you dare talk to me about mine” they’ll say. Shaming and blaming often go hand-in-hand. Blamers and shamers ask questions like: “Have you ever stopped to think the reason you’ve been passed over for promotion isn’t because you’re being discriminated against but because you’re just not very good at your job?”

7. There’s method in my madness. The justifiers…

I’ve brought my son and my mother into this post so I may as well bring my daughter into it too. She played football to a high level but absolutely hated those (thankfully rare) coaches who used trash talk – the hairdryer treatment – to try to fire them up during a game or in training. These justifiers said, in effect, we’re doing it for your own good. They rationalised it by claiming that it worked. “Look you play better when we’re mean to you and the rest of the team” despite the fact that the evidence wouldn’t stand scrutiny. Beware colleagues who try to rationalise unacceptable behaviour and be sceptical about the evidence used to justify it.

Of course, I appreciate recognising these seven habits of highly effective difficult people is only the starting point. The most important step – and often the most challenging – is doing something about it. But help is at hand. What’s the saying? A problem shared is a problem halved. I’d love to hear from you about your experiences of difficult workplace behaviour – as the victim or the perp. Think of me, if you will, as a kind of office crime scene investigator!

Sandy Keating

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