Ever work with someone passive aggressive? Thin-skinned? A shouter? Unless you’re the cameraperson who films melting glaciers for Nat Geo TV, you probably know how frustrating—sometimes even maddening—it can be to deal with a difficult personality. “It’s challenging if it’s your boss, of course, because you feel constrained by what you can say or do,” says Sheila Heen, a faculty member at Harvard Law School and co-author of Thanks for the Feedback. “But it can be just as hard for managers, since having authority over people doesn’t mean you have the power to make them change.”
‘Person’ Pet Peeve
Often the personality who most pushes your buttons is the one who’s least like you. For Heen, that’s the type who cast themselves as victims. “I try to be empathetic, but I can become impatient,” Heen says. It’s natural to want to tell them how they’re contributing to the situation, “but in the moment, they just want an audience—not problem-solving advice,” Heen says. She has found that in this case, as in most others, a more effective strategy is to talk to the person later. “Say that you have ideas for how he could have more control over the situation, if he is interested,” Heen says. “The key is to leave it as an open invitation, so that he comes to you when he’s ready to do something to improve the situation.”
The more you understand a person, the better you can relate. Here’s Heen’s take on six difficult types you’re likely to encounter as a boss, colleague or underling:
The thin-skinned “Being highly sensitive to feedback is just the way some people are wired,” says Heen. “It’s like being tall or short—they can’t help it.” Her recommendation is to have a conversation with the person. “Say that you were surprised by how upset she seemed last time and ask her to coach you on how to offer suggestions to her when you have them,” Heen says. “She may say she agreed with your comments and was just mad at herself or that you made them in front her boss—whatever she says, you’ll learn a lot.”
The perfectionist “The challenge with this type is that they have one standard of expectations for any given task, and it requires their 110 percent,” Heen says. Her advice: When giving that person an assignment, be specific—“I just want the quick and dirty, so don’t spend more than 10 minutes on this.” If it’s your boss, ask for direction: “I can pull this together by tomorrow if you want a rough outline, or I can give you something polished and more final by Friday—what’s your preference?”
The passive aggressive This personality doesn’t know that what they’re really thinking or feeling is leaking out, so the best way to engage with them is to call them out on their snarkiness. Just say, “I sense that you’re frustrated, so tell me why,” Heen recommends. They may respond with relief—“Really? I can tell you how I feel?”—or they may give you a knee-jerk denial. “In that case, the goal is just to plant the seed that you welcome their input, and hopefully over time, with your encouragement, they’ll see that they can talk freely with you,” Heen adds.
The blamer This is actually a more angry version of the victim, Heen says. The type just doesn’t see his role in the problem, and simply blames others for his missed deadlines. So, again, the solution is to keep helping him see what he has some control over—“If Jane didn’t respond to your email with what you needed, you should pick up the phone.” If he’s still throwing down excuses for blowing through deadlines, you could bring the whole team together—or put in a request—to discuss what everyone, including the blamer, is contributing to the problem and needs to do differently to get a different outcome.
The shouter Point out to this person that she’s yelling, and she’ll probably say the circumstances call for it. She won’t think it’s what she does all the time because she really can’t hear herself. “The part of the brain that’s dedicated to hearing language—both meaning and tone—turns off when you talk, which is why it’s surprising to hear a recording of yourself,” Heen explains. If it’s a colleague or underling, you could, in the spirit of helping her, offer to record her the next time she raises her voice so she can hear herself. Or if it’s your boss, you could tell her that she’ll get a better response from you if she lowers the heat.
The gossip Though this type is just looking for attention, it’s important to stop his behavior because it poisons the office. Change the subject or gently suggest that the damning rumor he’s repeating may not be the whole story. But if you’re going to say something more pointed, Heen advises doing so in private. “Make the observation that you’re worried about the impact of feeding the rumor mill, and that it makes you wonder sometimes what’s being said when you’re not around,” Heen says. The person may then go tell his allies what you said—but they may, in turn, tell him they agree.
Sheila Heen will be leading the sessions, “Understanding the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback to Negotiate What Matters Most” and “Pioneering Pay Equity: Strategies to Bridge the Gap, Own Your Value and Negotiate Your Worth,” at the 2015 Pennsylvania Conference for Women.