They called her "Nutty Nora." You probably managed someone like her. Nora would bring her baggage to work. She challenged everything, assigning the worst intents to everyone. Easily offended, Nora was always the victim.
It didn't start that way for you. Early on, Nora was so hungry and inquisitive. She was also rough and sarcastic. It would just take time, patience and coaching, you reasoned. You’d already worked for those "because I said so" bosses. You were different. You can work through anything. She'd come around.
Of course, the tension grew. She expected all of her ideas to be implemented immediately. Compliments were viewed with suspicion; coaching bred defensiveness instead of reflection. Every conversation degenerated into a cross-examination. Past comments were cast into weapons and hurled back at you. There was blame, recrimination and, finally, silence. The truth was undeniable: you failed.
As managers, we sometimes take for granted that everyone will work together, without pettiness, blind spots or ulterior motives. Unfortunately, we all eventually cross the emotional hypochondriac in our careers. From drama queens and prima donnas to know-it-alls and cheap shot artists, they feed off negativity, producing one headache after another. Sure, you can re-trace the history or psychoanalyze to determine what went wrong. But if you want to salvage the relationship, consider these strategies:
Set Clear Boundaries: Employees like Nora siphon your energy and sap your morale. They distract you and kill your productivity. Even if you’re anathema to zero tolerance, you can only allow it to fester for so long. Eventually, you have to draw the line.
In the end, you're the manager—you reached that level because of your skills, sacrifices, experience and temperament. They can disagree, but they cannot undermine. They can outline their case, but must remove strip it of sarcasm and enmity. Disagreement is healthy, but there must be deference on their part and openness on your own.
Bottom line: you must consistently convey that you aren't an adversary who is out to get them. And the reality must match the rhetoric. Fair or not, they must adapt to the "way things are," not the other way around.
Search for Common Ground: We spend our lives seeking to be understood. And we seek this understanding on emotional, as well as intellectual, levels. In any conflict, identify with how the other person feels. Give them the floor and the benefit of the doubt (initially). Stay out of the way; let them share and feel safe in doing so privately. Emphasize that you recognize their intent is positive: it's just their execution that requires work. You may even share your experiences, to build rapport. Always re-assure and look to forge a genuine connection. Once you established common ground emotionally, you can move into alleviating your other workplace disagreements.
Prepare: You've reached the point where every interaction with Nora is a hassle. Maybe it's time to stand your ground. Sure, you want to be flexible. But you can’t settle into the defensive, justifying everything.
Start by preparing ahead of time. Define your objectives. Mentally rehearse how you'll react. Walk through the process with a trusted colleague. Most important, clarify your perceptions. Chances are, you’ve already mentally caricatured this person…or written them off altogether. Knock it off: you're just setting yourself—and the other person—up for failure.
Don't Take the Bait: For workplace Noras, it's a game. They toy with emotions. Relish conflict. Manipulate you towards their end. It is easy to get huffy and overreact. Like judo, your weight can be turned against you. That's why you let go. Control your feelings. Filter out their distractions. Keep your ego in check. Don't take their comments personally, even when they latch onto a kernel of truth.
When they lash out, don't respond. And when they start feeling uncomfortable, don't let them wriggle out. Your job is to gather the facts, sniff out the exaggerations and identify areas of mutual agreement.
Identify Their Needs: Don't write them off just because they're high maintenance; the best ones often are. Put yourself in their shoes and figure out what they want. Is it sympathy? Clearer direction? Inclusion? Greater importance? Recognize what's truly burdening them. In the end, you may not be all that different.
In any conflict, start with empathy and work your way back. Listen for recurring themes and undercurrents. Ask questions so you understand what they're truly saying. Acknowledge the valid points. Repeat back statements, particularly ones reflecting distortions or unreasonable beliefs. Have them clarify, since you can't assume you know what they mean. Dilute the emotion; boil the issues down to their simplest forms.
Offer Givebacks: Think about the other person's perspective. What are their experiences and ambitions? How does that impact their perceptions? Chances are, your Nora feels routinized, scrutinized, stifled and powerless. She probably fears losing her job too.
In warfare, you seek to win the hearts and minds of civilians. To do this, they need to see progress. The Noras on your team are no different. Can you provide them with greater exposure? More opportunities to learn and grow? A bigger voice and real choices?
Similarly, scout out opportunities to involve them in projects or offer public accolades. Use them as a resource to flatter them. Instead of engaging in a perennial tug-of-war, give them a larger voice. At worst, you keep them distracted and out of your hair.
Include them in the process too. Ask them how they would realistically solve your conflicts. Ask them what triggers their reactions—and how they can lodge a stint between their feelings and reactions. Have them give you two simple rules for your interactions—and provide two of your own. Follow up to see if there has been progress. Suggest a mentor outside the department who can provide additional guidance.
Tomorrow, we'll look at how focusing on the big picture and self-awareness also reduces conflict with your employees. Read Part II here.
S&MM online columnist Jeff Schmitt works in publishing in Dubuque, IA. His column, "The Personal Touch," is designed to help managers and professionals step back and evaluate how they think, interact and work. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.