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Dealing with impossible people at the office

Have you ever had one of those people who come after you for no apparent reason? Or experienced the oh-so-subtle brush of the office politics player who throws you under the bus while smiling at your face? Or what about the passive aggressive who agrees to help you but secretly plots your failure? Work is already difficult with a lean organisation and larger objectives without having to deal with these distractions; but what happens when these come together? What do you, a Growth Leader, do in situations like these? In this article, we delve into the response by Growth Leaders to office antics that are prevalent in all organisations, from the two-man shop to the 1,000-person corporation.

Dealing with the Office Backstabber

You will know these people... they say nice things in front of you and then spread malicious rumours about you behind your back. Many a times, you are ignorant to what has happened until word comes back to you when the rumour has gone around. How should you respond to this?

(1) Never be provoked to a public fight. This is what the person wants so that he can sling more malicious mud at you. If you react, you can give some credence to his rumour, because only the guilty would react that way. Instead, you should approach him to sort this out in a friendly, quiet manner. Invite him to tea or lunch. Choose a neutral venue outside of the office. And do it with a smile. No doubt the person would not accept your invitation, but that is okay, because you do not add more fuel to the rumour, and you will come out on top for your restraint.

(2) Be consistent. If your actions are consistent before and after the rumour has circulated, others will notice that. They will realise that you were not affected by the rumour, and that you did not change the way you approached your work. This will show that there is no credence to the rumour. After all, if the rumour was true, you would have to make amends; but when it is untrue, there is no need to change anything.

(3) Be nice. The worst thing you can do is to stoop to the Backstabber's level and sling mud at the person, even if you have moral high ground. Such a ground is best kept intact by continuing to be nice to the person, by greeting him along the hallways, by smiling at him. The nicer you are to him, the more frustrated he gets since he cannot provoke a negative reaction from you. Remember, he wants you to lash out so that he can be vindicated. Don't play into his wiles.

(4) Don't fight fire with fire. Even if you evidence of the person's bad work or pettiness, don't throw it at him directly. If it has to do with organisational policy, then you can go through the normal corporate route to highlight the matter. But if it has to do with character or personality, then the matter is greyer. There is no need to sling anything at him, to fight fire with fire. The more you do this, the more you play into his deviant mind. Instead let it pass, because you have many more things to do than to be pulled into a childish confrontation that might just see YOU out the door!

Dealing with the Office Politician

They are everywhere! They use their influence with senior management or powerful leaders to meet their personal agenda. They look to amass a strong following so that they have a camp of supporters who will support them when they make a position play. The Politician will come across as your friend, but know that what she wants is power; either to control you or to get your support - or both! A Politician will never overtly go against you because she knows that she will need you, either now or in the future. So rather than burn bridges, the Politician will build an alliance with you, acting like she is your best friend in the office. So, how can you tell the Politician apart from the friend? Well, for one, you can sense her trying to push you to do things or go down a path that might not be in your best interest. She might also be saying positive things to you, while keeping negative aspects from you. These are not the actions of a true friend, and you need to be wary of them.

So what can you do to deal with the Office Politician?

(1) Always maintain a cordial relationship. While she is playing you, you can play her too. You'll never know when you will need her support, so while you might not agree with some of the things she does, you don't have to let her know. By maintaining a cordial relationship, she thinks that you are in her camp, when actually, you are in yours.

(2) Don't be associated with her camp. Speaking of being in camps, don't be associated with hers. The issue about camps is that when the right people are in power, one camp may thrive. But when that person falls out of favour, or moves on to another role, the Politician's support and power base may suddenly be pulled from under her, and with that, all the people in her camp. Instead, remain outside the pull of the camp. Be seen as neutral - neither for nor against them!

(3) Do favours. A Politician knows who she is beholden to, and tries to even the score. So, as you do more favours for the Politician, you also pull her towards you. While you are not in her camp, you may well pull her into yours. This allows you to call in your favours when you need her to back you up on an initiative. Yes, it is a game, but play it well, and you can coast past the Politician. So do more favours for her.

Dealing with Passive Aggressives

The person who says yes but means no - and acts on the no - is a passive aggressive. When he deliberately sits on the task (procrastinating), or willfully turns in poor quality work even when he says that we can depend on him to produce quality outcomes, that person is being passive aggressive. Passive aggressives do not start out as one. They have been groomed into the position through bad leadership, through one-too-many broken promises. Ultimately, they come to the conclusion that it was better not to say as one says, since there was no reward for doing what one says he would do. However, this behaviour extends to ALL leaders, and hence a new Growth Leader would be treated the same way as the previous bad leader. So what can the Growth Leader do?

(1) Create a new normal. You would have to get the person on your side. Tell him that there is a new leader who does things differently. One reason a passive aggressive is as he is is because there were many broken promises. Keep to your word. This will take time, but it is a good investment as the person opens up to you and then gains your trust. ALL leadership relationships are about trust.

(2) Stretch them. You have to stretch passive aggressives because they are used to delivering only the bare minimum, and even that is a tall order. The sad fact of the matter is that this minimum had been tolerated for such a long time, and the longer that had been going on, the harder it would be to turn them. This means that you have to stretch them and give them bigger projects to do and to complete. Make sure you guide them and don't allow them to give you excuses. You also need to upskill them, because they have been so used to delivering only the bare minimum.

(3) Be prepared to let them go. The problem with passive aggressives is that, the longer they were tolerated, the more difficult it is to change them. After some time, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and they have still not changed their behaviour, chances are they will not. To continue to tolerate such behaviour would now make you complicit in such actions, and that would not sit well with the others who report to you. If you do not let go of the deadwood, you might find the rot penetrating through the different layers and you will have a bigger morale issue on your hands going forward. You must therefore be prepared to let them go so that you can release the others to perform!

Dealing with the Smart Alec

The Smart Alec, as the name implies, is one who thinks he is smarter than you, simply because he has been there longer or who has deeper knowledge. He likes to show up your inadequacies, and will jump at any opportunity to show who's boss. While it may be a nuisance in the beginning, if not actively managed over time, it may lead to a crisis of confidence on the part of the Growth Leader, and this will undermine his leadership position. Hence, there is a need to actively manage the Smart Alec. Here's how...

(1) Accept where you may be smarter and where you may not. The first thing to do is to accept what you don't know. You have been given the leadership position for a reason, and that reason may not be in the area of that person's expertise. Hence, if he is attacking you on the front that you may not be strong in, deflect the attack by admitting you don't know anything. And then recognise that Alec is an expert of sorts. By doing this, you take all the sting out of his attack and you gain respect from those around you.

(2) Establish your expertise. Next you should stamp your authority on the things that made you who you are. Establish your expertise as soon as you can, further cementing your position as the Growth Leader in the every one's eyes (though not necessarily in Alec's). But that does not matter because Alec's attacks were meant to show you up to those around you. But they are not stupid, and they might well deride Alec for being petty and childish, further cementing your primacy as the group's leader.

Rounding it up

If we can summarise your actions facing an impossible person in the office, here are three things you should always remember:

(1) Be nice, because no one can fault a nice person

(2) Smile, because this is one reaction that Impossible People cannot overcome, and

(3) Keep quiet, because it will create an air of mystery - and also stop you from over-reacting.

Remember these three and it will keep you out of trouble with the Impossibles. Difficult? Perhaps. But well worth it in the end, when they realise you cannot be bettered.

And that is what a Growth Leader will do!

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