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Ron Kaufman

Quality Insider

Inside Job

Why dealing with “difficult” colleagues will lead to happier customers

Published: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 - 10:40

When an organization’s employees aren’t happy, it’s unlikely they’ll be providing the kind of quality service that leads to happy customers. One of the fastest ways to create internal strife is to let “difficult” people go unchecked. The best way to handle these personalities is to help resolve the difficult situations they’re experiencing so that everyone at the organization has the positive energy needed to provide uplifting service to customers.

Too often, organizations promise satisfaction to external customers and then allow internal politics to frustrate their employees’ good intentions to deliver. It’s important to remember that your customers aren’t the only ones who come through your organization’s door every day seeking quality service. Your co-workers and leaders also need to be served. If they’re not happy, it’s not likely they’ll deliver stellar service, and the same goes for you. Inevitably, “difficult people” will creep into your work life, disturbing your colleagues’, your leaders’, and your own workflow, negatively affecting the service you all provide your customers.

At some point, we’re all viewed by our colleagues as the organization’s “difficult person.” That’s why it’s important that we find a way to provide uplifting service internally all the time, even—especially—when difficult situations arise so internal tiffs don’t lead to rifts with customers.

Once you’ve characterized someone as a “difficult person,” you’re already in a lose-lose situation. I like to think there are no difficult customers; there are only difficult customer situations. Similarly, there are no difficult co-workers; there are only difficult co-worker situations. Once you think differently about how to manage those difficult situations, everyone can be more satisfied and better served, including you, your colleagues, and most important, your customers.

I’m talking about an uplifting service culture change. In my book, Uplifting Service (Evolve Publishing, 2012), I emphasize that service is taking action to create value for someone else, and that “someone else” can be outside or inside your organization.

When all players in the organization agree to define the way they work together using this definition of service, everyone will be able to focus on creating value and serving each other better, which leads to better external service. Instead of seeing an angry co-worker and not wanting to have anything to do with him, you will naturally stop and think, “What does this person value? What is he not getting that he needs? What can I do now to serve him better?” When this culture of service takes hold in the organization, everyone feels better and works better together.

Assess the situation carefully

Is your colleague deeply upset or simply having a bad day? Is she angry about an ongoing internal issue that must be addressed and solved, or a one-off situation like a presentation gone wrong? Is this a process problem that persistently provokes, or a one-time irritation that will naturally fade away? Once you have assessed the situation, you can then determine whether the person just requires a little personal attention from you—or whether a larger plan must be created.

Shift your perspective

Stop thinking of your colleague as “difficult” and start thinking about the difficulty he is experiencing and how you can serve him in his current situation. What is it he is concerned, disturbed, or upset about that’s causing his behavior?

Once you realize what a difficult situation means to another person, you can approach the issue with more compassion, generosity, empathy, and patience. This is far more effective for both parties than concluding that another person is difficult all the time or is always overreacting.

The reality is that you never really know all that is going on with another person, with his family’s health or his financial situation. You don’t know what happened at his home that morning or the night before. You don’t really know what triggered this emotionally upset moment. You can therefore decide, “Let me choose compassion for this person instead of judgment,” and start exercising empathy.

Lean in and work on the problem together

A “difficult person” often behaves that way because she is trying to get something she needs, or is trying to make something happen. She probably thinks the only way she can get her colleagues’ attention is by outwardly showing her anger. But we know from experience that the way to get better service is to be a better customer. The same goes for getting the help we all want from our colleagues.

Let your colleague know—as subtly as possible—that being upset, angry, or “difficult” is not the best way to get what she needs. You can start by saying, “I care. Help me understand what you are concerned about.” By saying this and then listening, often her anger will fade away. Once your colleague has calmed down, you can say, “Thank you for explaining this to me. Let’s solve this problem together. It’s not us or them. It’s just us.” And then you can both get to work solving the problem.

Plan how you’ll work together

One way to defuse a difficult situation is to pull out a piece of paper and decide what actions each of you will take next. This helps remove emotional tension and gets everyone down to work.

The sooner you say, “Let’s figure this thing out. What action can I take that will create value for you? Let’s agree on next steps. Let’s make some promises to each other.” Working this way creates a culture of colleagues taking action to create value for each other. It takes emotion out of the equation and creates a platform where people can work more effectively with each other.”

Role model the right behavior

One of the best ways to make this behavior a part of your company culture is to role model it yourself. You can do this from any position in the organization: the top, middle, or  frontline. Eventually, your colleagues will see how you handle these situations and how well your approach leads to positive action.

When others see that problems don’t need to be painful, that emotions don’t need to be escalated, they’ll realize that “difficult situations” don’t need to consume all your energy or your entire day. As more and more people inside your organization take this approach, they will recognize this is what the culture is becoming; this is what the company really is. Everyone will see that this approach really works, and everyone will want to take part.

Think about it like this: The “difficult co-workers” you encounter on a given workday are simply people seeking service. Being able to recognize and reconcile those situations internally is just as important as being able to recognize when a customer interaction has gone south. With surprising service coming from the inside, it’s easier to step up your service on the outside. And when that happens, everyone at the organization wins.


About The Author

Ron Kaufman’s picture

Ron Kaufman

Ron Kaufman is a thought leader, educator, and motivator for uplifting customer service and building service cultures. He is the founder of UP! Your Service, a service education and management consultancy with offices in the United States and Singapore. He is passionately committed to uplifting the spirit and practice of service worldwide and delivers high-content, high-energy speeches and interactive workshops. Kaufman is a columnist at Bloomberg Businessweek and he is the author of Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet (Evolve Publishing, 2012) and 14 other books on service, business, and inspiration.