by Achim Nowak

4 VERY Annoying People – and How to Respond to Them Without Losing Your Cool!

November 22, 2020

Of this you can be sure.

No matter where you work, no matter how many decades of work experience you have under your belt, no matter how much positional authority you may think 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 all 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 comments. Lobbies caustic comments Jennifer’s way. Or simply ignores her presence altogether.

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

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. But there are archetypes in the etymology of difficult people. They exist in most every workplace. They will show up wherever you work. Their behavior is tolerated for reasons I usually don’t understand. Often having to do with the perceived irreplaceable value of a particular individual.

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

Here are the 4 types that are most personally triggering to me. As in Jennifer and Jim’s case, they tend to be turf protectors. They are animated by fear. That is their common trait.

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

  1. The Raging Bull

S/he is 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 his name in a calm and friendly voice. Continue until she hears 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 we can do to avoid such outbursts in the future?”
  1. The Competitor

S/he seems to always wish to surpass you and tries to turn every professional situation into a game of one-upmanship. S/he always seeks to have the last word in a brainstorm, attempts to upstage in all social settings, and at its worst, tries 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 her to shine. By giving him a chance to feel important you may lessen his 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 s/he takes public credit for work YOU have done, interrupt immediately in a calm manner and delineate what you take credit for and what s/he may take claim, in turn.
  1. The Backstabber

S/he says nice things to your face, offers compliments and butters you up. You have the impression that s/he is a trusted friend – until you hear that s/he has 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. S/he worries that s/he will eventually be left in the dust.

What can you do?

  • Confront the backstabber. Don’t yell or argue. Simply tell him what you have heard. Let her 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. 
  1. The Withholder

S/he doesn’t share all the information s/he has with you. S/he is quiet and incommunicative in meetings – what we commonly label passive-aggressive. He makes you chase him in order to get anything done. Her passivity drains your energy and often wastes your time.

What is going on? S/he feels overlooked and unimportant in the big scheme. And dammit, s/he won’t put up with it. S/he will make sure you’re on your own unless you properly ask for his help or her contribution.

What can you do?

  • Butter up the Withholder. Let him know how highly valued he is. Generously offer her 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 with him. Make her tell you what she prefers – email, phone call, text, planned or impromptu touchpoints. Ask him to commit to deadlines that work for him. All of these granular tidbits rope her into communicating with you a little more 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 really 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. See them for who they are. Execute your plan. Stay cool.

This is where leadership liberation begins.

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