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Commentary: Learning How to Deal With Difficult Colleagues Leads to Better Service

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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. Too often, organizations promise satisfaction to external customers and then allow internal politics to frustrate their employees’ good intentions to deliver.

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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 yours, your colleagues’, and your leaders’, workflow and negatively affecting the service you provide.

However, once you’ve characterized someone as a “difficult person,” you’re already in a lose-lose situation. It’s like my view on difficult customers: there are no difficult customers, only difficult customer situations. When the entire organization agrees to define the way they work together using a common definition of service, everyone will be able to focus on creating value and serving each other better, which in turn leads to better external service.

So, instead of seeing angry co-workers and not wanting to have anything to do with them, you could stop and think: What do these people value? What are they not getting that they need? What can I do now to serve them better? When this culture of service takes hold in the organization, everyone feels better and works better together.

Here’s how you can use difficult situations to start building an uplifting service culture in your organization—from the inside out.

• Assess the situation carefully. Are your colleagues deeply upset or simply having a bad day? Are they 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 these people just require a little personal attention from you—or whether a larger plan must be created.

• Shift your perspective. Stop thinking of your colleagues as “difficult” and start thinking about the difficulty they are experiencing, and how you can serve them in the current situation. What is it that they are concerned, disturbed or upset about that’s leading to this behavior?

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

The reality is that you never really know all that is going on with other people, with family health or financial situations. You don’t know what happened at their homes 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 these people instead of judgment and start exercising empathy.

• Lean in and work on the problem together. “Difficult” people often behave that way because they are trying to get something they need or  trying to make something happen. They probably think the only way they can get colleagues’ attention is by outwardly showing anger. But we know from experience that the way to get better service is to be a better customer. And the same goes for getting the help we all want from our colleagues.

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