Working with Difficult People: Part 2

7 Feb

This post is dedicated to that colleague you seem to constantly offend. Every day. There’s no rational explanation for it. Call it personality or style difference, call it philosophical mismatch. We’ve all been there. I call this type of difficult person: Corner Office Troll.

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Courtesy of Jan Brett

Sometimes there are people who just won’t like us, no matter how hard we work or how much we try to convince them otherwise. But being liked, or treated “fairly,” is not a requirement at work.

I once worked with a woman whose behavior was universally perceived as troll-like. Despite being quite charming, well-read and interesting to talk with, she put people off by her anti-social behavior. She embodied the character of the Troll in the “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Try to cross her bridge, and she reacted. Snarky e-mails, character-blasting commentary in meetings, routine snubs in social situations—it messed with me. I wanted so badly to figure out how to make her happy, but it seemed impossible.

Everyone liked her despite the gruffness, but she didn’t seem to have any care for others’ opinions. She just operated in a cut-and-dried way, getting the work done flawlessly and sending the message that no one could do it better. She was reluctant to engage with others on projects, preferring to work alone. Beyond being introverted, she shunned the company of others and seemed more comfortable brooding in her office. She would often mutter to herself, in negative terms, making it clear that she gave herself a hard time just as much as she criticized everyone else.

In my case, interaction with the Troll was particularly challenging because she played a role in evaluating my work. Here are some of the things I did to stay focused on the work, not her behavior:

  1. Be clear about the quality of my work. As much as I dreaded them, I had regular conversations with the Troll to ensure that my work performance was up to snuff. This helped me to separate her negative behavior from her assessment of my output and quality.
  2. Don’t gossip. There were PLENTY of ironic and amusing real-life stories that arose from my well-intentioned but usually unsuccessful attempts to win over the Troll, but I did my best to not speak negatively about her with other co-workers. I’ll admit that processing the Troll’s antics with colleagues helped me to keep a sense of humor and perspective, but there is a fine line between gossip and commiseration, and I tried as hard as I could to not cross it. Character assassination has longer term effects that make any fleeting sense of gratification just pointless. This is just professional etiquette—even if it’s not reciprocated by the Troll. Integrity counts.
  3. Don’t take it personally. Some people just genuinely don’t care about other people. I am to the core a people-pleaser, so this was really hard, but I made a concentrated effort EVERY DAY to think positively and not let the negativity distract me from stellar efforts.

That being said, sometimes there’s only so much you can do. For the sake of career advancement, I did make the decision to leave the company, because working in the midst of a “my way or the highway” attitude was not challenging me to grow or learn. Instead, it seemed to be encouraging me to become more invisible and less noticeable, lest I offend the Troll. This is fear-based response, and I know it, so at a certain point I decided I had to move on.

Some time has passed now, and I have come to a better understanding of the Troll. I don’t wish her any ill will. I’ve come to understand that the judgment she directed my way was symbolic, in a way. Carl Jung talks about the shadow side, the part of ourselves that is repressed. In the Jungian framework, the Troll fits—as the shadow side who reminds us of everything we can’t do. Others like to think of this as the devil on our shoulder, the one who not only encourages us to do bad things but keeps us from performing to our God-given potential by discouraging us from trying, or scaring us into thinking that we won’t succeed. Simply put, it’s the bully within.

I came to see this experience as a learning one, in the end. The Troll, for me, symbolized the judgmental, “you can’t do that, so don’t even try” part of my own psyche. Every time the Troll criticized me, I internalized it, to my own detriment, instead of converting it into an opportunity for personal improvement. Maybe I am a slacker because I made it to work a few minutes late due to weather or take an afternoon off to attend an event for my child. Maybe I am disrespectful because I suggest another way of thinking about leadership. All of these acceptances of the Troll’s innuendo undermined my own creativity and productivity, and I let it happen.

The Troll’s lesson for me? Push back, professionally, and move beyond the judgment—be it externally or internally motivated. Don’t let the Troll’s reality become your own. Cross that bridge to the greener grass.

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2 Responses to “Working with Difficult People: Part 2”

  1. Gene Monteith February 8, 2009 at 8:39 am #

    Excellent post. The Troll may be someone whose only purpose in life is to work. That makes any challenge to her ideas an attack on her way of life. With these people, there often is no room for compromise, and most of us usually give up after being slapped down a few times.

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