by Achim Nowak

4 VERY Annoying People. Be Prepared

April 30, 2023

Of this you can be sure.

No matter where you work, no matter how many decades of experience you have under your belt, no matter how much positional authority you possess, they will show up. The colleagues who trigger the heck out of you.

Annoy you. Provoke you. Enrage you. Keep you up at night.

Well, wait a minute. That is our impulse response.

They WILL keep showing up. We, however, can learn to respond differently.

A conversation I had last week made me think of this. Jennifer was thrilled to join the Executive Team of a red-hot biotech firm 6 months ago. She stepped into a brand-new VP role that had not existed before. The role was created to help the Executive Team get ready for the launch of a highly promising asset 2 years from now.

Great, right? Everyone on the Executive Team had interviewed Jennifer. Everyone had lobbied for her hire. And yet Jim, the Head of Research & Development, engages in continuous public verbal battles with Jennifer. Belittles her. Lobbies caustic comments Jennifer’s way. Or simply ignores her altogether.

When Jim feels bad about his behavior, he calls Jennifer after a team meeting. Apologizes for his behavior. And then continues to behave in the very same vein.

What’s at play here? Personality differences? Organizational politics? Turf wars?

Let’s keep it simple. There are difficult people. Different types of folks are difficult for different sets of people. There are archetypes in the etymology of difficult people. They exist in most every workplace. Their behavior is tolerated for reasons I usually don’t understand. Often having to do with the perceived irreplaceability of a particular individual.

Your job? Notice the TYPE. Don’t take their behavior personally. They’re a type. They can’t help themselves. Notice the type - and have a plan.

Here are the 4 types that most trigger me. As in Jennifer and Jim’s case, they tend to be turf protectors. They are animated by fear.

Let’s look at how they operate – and how to best respond without becoming overly triggered.

1. The Raging Bull

They are wont to erupt unexpectedly in fits of rage and become unglued. This usually comes with verbal assaults on colleagues and team-mates, often while lacking necessary information and without having made efforts to try and understand other perspectives.

What is going on? The Bull is highly stressed, overwhelmed, and afraid of failure.

What can you do?

  • Take care of yourself. Excuse yourself from the conversation and suggest Let’s discuss this later!
  • If you stay in the conversation, interrupt after the Bull winds down. Keep saying their name in a calm and friendly voice. Continue until they hear you.
  • Hold up the mirror. Describe to the Bull the behavior you just witnessed. Do so without judging the behavior or analyzing it. Ask “What can we do to avoid such outbursts in the future?”

2. The Competitor

They seem to always wish to surpass you and try to turn every professional situation into a game of one-upmanship. They seek to have the last word in a brainstorm, attempt to upstage in social settings, and at their worst, try to publicly denigrate the value of your contributions.

What is going on?  The Competitor feels, deep down, not as skilled as others, as valued, or as well-prepared. S/he fears becoming irrelevant.

What can you do?

  • Give them the respect and attention they so desperately seek. Allow them to shine. By giving them a chance to feel important, you may lessen their urge to run you down.
  • Continuously speak the language of synthesis and collaboration, and remind everyone why and how they accelerate both individual and collective success.
  • If they take public credit for work YOU have done, interrupt immediately in a calm manner and delineate what you take credit for and what they may claim, in turn.

3. The Backstabber

They says nice things to your face, offer compliments and butter you up. You have the impression that they are a trusted friend – until you hear that they been speaking ill of you behind your back and complained about you to “the big bosses.”

What is going on?  The Backstabber resents the attention you’re receiving from folks of influence in the organization. They worry that they will eventually be left in the dust.

What can you do?

  • Confront the backstabber. Don’t yell or argue. Simply tell them what you have heard. Let them know that you know. And that you need it to stop.
  • If any of the information that you were given was wrong, apologize. Keep the conversation to indisputable evidence.
  • Allow the other person an out, even if you feel they don’t deserve it. “I trust you didn’t mean to do that.” “I’m sure you weren’t aware of the impact that story might have on my reputation.” Trust that you have fired a warning shot. The Backstabber is likely to back off. 

4. The Withholder

They don’t share all the information they have with you. They are quiet and incommunicative in meetings – what we commonly label passive-aggressive. They makes you chase them in order to get anything done. Their passivity drains your energy and often wastes your time.

What is going on?  The Withholder feels overlooked and unimportant in the big scheme. And dammit, they won’t put up with it. They will make sure you’re on your own unless you properly ask for their help.

What can you do?

  • Butter up the withholder. Let them know how highly valued they are. Generously offer warranted praise.
  • Come in the side door. when the Withholder doesn’t volunteer information, test ideas and approaches with them to elicit YES or NO answers.
  • Test a multitude of communication methods. Make them tell you what they prefer – email, phone call, text, planned or impromptu touchpoints. Ask them to commit to deadlines that work for them. All of these granular tidbits rope them into communicating with you on your terms. 

I can get triggered by all 4 of these types. But if I have a fatal attraction, it’s the withholder. Fatal attractions are those folks whose behavior somehow has the power to trigger us faster, longer, more resoundingly. They hold this power because their behavior taps right into our deepest personal wounds.

Disagree with me all you want. Argue with me. Talk behind my back. It doesn’t bother me all that much. The withholder, however, has the power to set me off more than any other type. Why? Well, my dad was a withholder, and even with many years of therapy behind me, folks who withhold can still take me to my personal brink.

There’s only one way forward. Know your types. Recognize your fatal attractions. Have a plan.

When the fatal attractions show up – and they will – choose to not get annoyed. Execute your plan. Stay cool.

That’s where leadership liberation begins.

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