Dealing with difficult people

Giving time but saving energy

May 4, 2004
By: Bob Rausch, Ph.D.

Have you ever felt frustrated or irritated with a co-worker, subordinate, or boss? We've all had the occasional run-in with someone at work. Periodic disagreements, misunderstandings, and faulty communication can lead to frustration. But have you ever met that uniqueperson who causes you extreme frustration every timeyou come in contact with him or her?

Whether the contact is in a group meeting, one-on-one, or even when you think about this person, you get the same negative feeling in the pit of your stomach. These are the people that take not only your time, but also something more valuable. They rob you of your energy.

Is It Possible to Give Time but Not Energy to Someone?

According to one of my clients, it not only is possible to give time and not energy to difficult people, it's necessary. A subordinate of his consistently robbed him of his energy. During one of our coaching calls he said, "I know exactly what to do with the person I'm having problems with. I'm going to give him my time, but not give him my energy."

I thought this realization was absolutely inspirational. I was especially pleased because this client and I had spent a great deal of his time and money dealing with this frustrating situation.

My client stated that every time he came in contact with the problem individual, he felt irritated and walked away feeling drained. It became so bad that every time he thoughtof this subordinate (which he did a lot), he felt the same energy drain.

Finally, in one of our coaching sessions, I asked him, "What's the realissue here? We've discussed setting expectations for this person, giving him specific goals, and follow-through, but he continues to be the topic of our coaching calls." My client beat around the bush a little and then said, "The truth is I don't like this guy. He's a whiner and demands more attention than I have or want to give to him. He's either complaining about what he has to do or making excuses for not doing it. I just don't like him!" He hit on the core of his problem—he didn't like the subordinate—and he revealed the underlying reasons.

My client's climb to success had not been easy. When he started his career he had a demanding boss and demanding job, attended college at night, and had a young family. Over the years his life didn't get easier. He learned early that complaining was fruitless. His belief was, "There's no time for complaining or making excuses. You have to be tough and do what it takes to be successful." His experiences led him to have little respect or patience for anyone who didn't' have the gutsto face life head-on, without complaining.

The Decision to Give Time and Energy Is Yours to Make

Although the manager had a revelation, he soon discovered that there's a big difference between an Aha! moment and actually knowing how to pull it off. Our sessions began to focus on the steps required to give time but not energy to this situation.

The first step is obvious: Each of us is personally responsible for how we use our energy. The ultimate decision is ours. In reality, no one robs another person of his or her energy. When we allow ourselves to become upset or judgmentalabout someone's actions, we have decidedto waste energy. If you gossip about a co-worker, you rob yourself of personal energy. The same holds true for our attitudes toward other departments. When we criticize the efforts of another department or team without understanding all the facts, we abuse our own energy resources.

If leaders believe the best way to improve production is to verbally beat their managers into shape, they are deciding to decrease energy, not increase it. Leadership—or should I say good leadership—has no room for complaining about or degrading employees. People on your team need direction, support, reinforcement, and encouragement—not criticism. I've seen leaders who spend more time and energy putting down their subordinates than lifting them up. If employees are not working to capacity, find ways to help them do so. If they still can't perform their jobs satisfactorily, free up their futures (send them home), so they can find something at which they can succeed. But don't waste your energy complaining about them.

Three Reasons We Struggle With Time and Energy

We waste energy on others primarily because of three reasons:

  • Misunderstanding personality characteristics
  • Past experience
  • Value judgments

Misunderstanding personality characteristics is the most prevalent problem in business relationships. We waste a great deal of energy on those people we don't understand. You may not agree with this, or like it, but the people who frustrate us most are those who are most like us. I facilitated a meeting of a group of senior leaders in which this became clearly evident.

The manufacturing manager and quality manager had a running battle. They wouldn't go into each other's office without someone else being present. Everyone in the company knew they didn't like each other. Within the first couple of hours of my facilitation, these two got into the worst argument I had ever seen. After a few minutes, I jumped into the middle of this red-faced, veins-in-the-neck-bulging argument and asked them, "How are the two of you alike?"

I had completed a management personality profile on each manager, so I knew they had a lot of similarities. It didn't take them long to admit that they had more similarities than differences. The result was that both managers realized they wanted the same things and that their conflict was due to misunderstanding each other's personality. I later discovered that it took about a half day for the whole company to know that these two guys had buried the hatchet.

Past experience can cause us to use energy ineffectively. In the earlier example the manager didn't like whiners, because his experience did not allow him the luxury of complaining. Frustration increases and energy decreases when we allow our past experiences to influence our present relationships negatively. A leader is responsible for creating as many positive, present experiences as possible to energize people.

Value-judging another person when you don't have all the facts is not only de-energizing, it's also unfair to that person. Bill McGrane, one of my mentors, constantly reminded me that "People do things for their own reasons, not for mine." If you don't know someone's reasons for doing what he does, you have no right to judge him. If his reasoning is faulty, it's your responsibility as a leader to help correct it. Judging others drains your personal energy supply.

Three Ways to Solve the Time/Energy Dilemma

Take Personal Responsibility for What You Think, Say, and Do
I have great respect for those leaders who keep a cool head when dealing with difficult people. Thomas Jefferson said it best: "Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances." Cool and unruffled is maintained by keeping our eye on the goal and refusing to lose energy by irrelevant circumstances or people's behavior.

Separate Facts from Opinion.
One way to stay fact-focused is by being cautious of others' opinions. One de-energizing horror story involved a team I coached. Each team member experienced major communication problems with the manager. They discovered that the root of the problem started when the manager was hired. It seems that the manager's boss took him aside and gave him the run-down on each department member's ineptitude. Needless to say, these comments caused the new manager to have a less than favorable opinion of his subordinates. As a result, the manager failed to communicate effectively and rechecked everything his team did. I can't tell you how much productive time this team lost. Just trying to stay out of the manager's way wasted significant energy.

Separate Facts from Emotion
I often hear people say they don't like the touchy-feelystuff. I believe that if you allow emotions such as anger, frustration, resentment, and criticism to influence how you treat your employees, you're touchy-feely.

One of the most impressive leaders I've known said his wife believes he is too patient with people. However, his subordinates said he was the best leader they had ever had. Many of them told me that he had the ability to confront someone and they felt better after the experience. Facts energize, negative emotions de-energize.

Napoleon Bonaparte approached the time/energy issue best when he said, "The strong man is the one who is able to intercept at will the communication between the senses and the mind."

Bob Rausch, Ph.D.

Bob Rausch, Ph.D.

Contributing Writer

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