How to deal with difficult managers.

Does your employer offer the Employee Assistance Program, or EAP for short? It's a confidential short-term counselling service, where you can address anything from work-related stress to heavy personal issues. Many larger companies now offer the service and I have witnessed first hand the benefits that it provides. I have seen clients who are just looking for an objective perspective on their challenging work decision to a person desperate for tools to deal with their anxiety disorder. Most of the counsellors you will encounter are highly trained and provide EAP as a preventative treatment that assists clients to avoid the long-term impacts of issues in our lives we find difficult to emotionally manage.

One of the most frequent issues I encounter in my work with EAP clients is when they find working with a problematic manager. It's important for me to ask quite a number of fairly confrontational questions that sort out just how much of this clash of personalities may well being perpetuated by the client. It's a delicate conversation and one that might not really come up for a one or two sessions. However, while I cannot work with the manager and their behaviour I can work on my client's behaviours and attitudes.

Why would you want to change what you do to "fit" another person's problematic behaviour? Firstly, I remember reading in an Industrial Psychology paper that every worker will come across one of these "difficult" managers once every seven years! So you might as well build some skills to deal with them. Secondly, if you can deal with someone that challenges all of your usual people skills then you can take on whatever else is thrown at you. Obviously, if we're talking bullying and harassment then THAT is the subject for a completely different blog.

The three touch stones I ask every client to try are these: Sympathy, Curiosity, Clarification. Sympathy is usually a bit of a last resort. It is used to help you reframe this person's behaviour from a direct attack on yourself, to a symptom either of failed communication between you both, or a failure of the difficult manager to be flexible with their own communication style. Curiosity is also an "attitude-changer" which helps put you in a frame of mind where you try and take on a friendly curiosity to the difficult person as if you were uncovering a new culture that you want to respect. Finally, Clarification helps you put aside how a person is talking to you and focus on what pieces of information are buried somewhere within their poor communication habits (or your shared difficulty with communicating). Reflect that information back and watch the transformation in your relationship.