We all have difficult colleagues: the person who treats their job like a Hunger Games-style fight for supremacy, the composer of passive-aggressive emails or the refrigerator viking who pillages lunches without mercy.
It may be tempting to daydream of a world where you could hurl their belongings from the top of your office building and send them out into the cold.
But Concordia University is offering another way forward.
This month, the school will host a seven-hour course that invites students to deal with their difficult colleagues by trying to better understand the source of the prickly behaviour.
Kathryn Peterson, who teaches the Dealing With Difficult Personalities course, admits that empathy may not have the immediate payoff of revenge, but she says it’s the most effective way forward.
“I think I’ve always had a fascination with difficult people,” says Peterson. “I’ve always wanted to crack the code, to figure out what makes people hard to deal with. And can you, through empathy, understand that and help them?”
Peterson says one of the first things she teaches students is to identify the source of someone’s unpleasant demeanour.
“When you have difficult behaviour, it comes from someplace,” she said. “Just understanding that creates this ‘aha!’ moment. People say, ‘OK, it’s not my fault the person is acting this way,’ or ‘This person has a paranoid base and he’s acting up with me but it’s much larger than that.’ ”
Given that roughly one in five people will experience a mental health problem each year in Canada, it’s important to realize that some people’s disruptive behaviour masks a great deal of suffering.
The solution, Peterson says, can be as simple as using a bit of empathy and inviting your colleague to do the same.
“A lot of times, when people have difficult behaviours, they aren’t even conscious of their behaviour and the effect it has on others,” she said. “Often that’s the one thing that we want them to become aware of. And when they do, it can really change the dynamic.”
The idea is to be patient and communicate clearly, she says, but not to become someone’s therapist.
Peterson, who teaches problem-solving and communication skills, got her start working with the homeless at a clinic in downtown Montreal. By the time people would come to her, they’d be at the end of their rope, struggling with addiction, mental illness and sleeping in a shelter most nights.
“There would be times where people were angry and really difficult to deal with, but when you realize that the anger isn’t directed at you, it’s much easier to deal with,” she said. “When people are in pain, they lash out, and you have to work hard to get to the source of that hurt.”
Throughout her 14 years of working with people in a life-or-death crisis, Peterson honed her empathy and her ability to get to the root causes of difficult behaviour.
While there is no single type of problematic workplace attitude, she outlines a few common types of difficult personalities.
There are the narcissistic co-workers who are as quick to take credit for the team’s success as they are to shift blame when things go sour. Or the backbiting, gossip and sarcastic emails of the passive-aggressive colleague who tends to thrive on misery.
Sometimes it’s as simple as different personalities clashing.
“It’s a bit of a generalization, but people in sales and people in IT don’t have the same kinds of communication skills,” said Peterson. “Recognizing that goes a long way toward creating a better work environment.”
Often it’s a matter of adjusting the expectations a person has of their colleagues.
“What are your priorities? What’s the most important thing to work on?” said Peterson. “Because with someone that we find difficult, it becomes so entangled that everything seems like a problem. But it isn’t.
“What’s the deal-breaker? Focus on that, let go of the rest. It’s amazing to find someone you’re close to at work, someone who you’ll become friends with outside the office. But that’s rare. The real question is, can we be professional and courteous to people we disagree with at work? We can.”
AT A GLANCE
Dealing With Difficult Personalities is a seven-hour course offered Jan. 17 and April 30. Early registration is $265.50; regular registration is $295. The cost includes lunch. For more information, visit concordia.ca.