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About Those Difficult Colleagues: There Are Ways of Dealing With Them : Workplace: Physicians' book tells how to handle such office menaces as the Tank, Sniper, Grenade and Know-It-All.

November 03, 1994|LISA GENASCI | ASSOCIATED PRESS

You just started a new job and your boss comes storming over to set you straight: There's no room for slackers in his outfit . . . don't even consider wasting time . . . there's plenty of other people around who need your job!

The barrage goes on and on.

You've been targeted by a Tank. At least, that's how physicians Rick Kirschner and Rick Brinkman, who have studied and written about difficult people, identify such a personality.

But your career isn't doomed even if your boss is a Tank, Kirschner and Brinkman say. You can succeed with impossible people by understanding their personalities and handling them appropriately.

Kirschner and Brinkman have written a book, "Dealing With People You Can't Stand," that outlines 10 types of difficult personalities and how to address the idiosyncrasies of each. Besides the Tank, the list includes the Sniper, the Grenade, the Know-It-All, the Whiner and the Nothing.

In the case of a Tank, "people's normal reaction is to do exactly what will make the situation worse," Brinkman said in a recent interview. "If someone's throwing a tantrum, the wrong answer would be to blast them back or withdraw."

Instead, Kirschner said, the goal is to re-establish your self-respect and control--perhaps a tall order when someone's going after your self-esteem with a 10-gauge shotgun.

One way that can be achieved is to hold your ground, calmly interrupting the tirade by repeating the person's name, quickly backtracking from their main point, then stating yours briefly and in a non-threatening way.

Gayle Luckey has used the Kirschner-Brinkman advice. Luckey, who helped create a program for troubled teens in Grants Pass, Ore., recently renegotiated her group's contract with state officials. During her presentation, one man repeatedly interrupted with hostile comments.

"He was invalidating what I was saying. It was a power struggle," Luckey said. "Normally, I would have been quiet and let my ideas die at the table."

This time, however, she waited for the official to finish and calmly began again with, "As I was saying. . . ." After several such attempts to cut her off, the man realized she wasn't about to abandon her position and let her finish.

The Sniper, another of the personalities on the Kirschner-Brinkman hit parade, learns your weak spots and uses them against you. The Grenade explodes suddenly into unfocused ranting and raving. The Nothing person refuses to communicate, while the Know-It-All is closed to new ideas. The Whiner complains and complains.

Certain types of organizational structures breed such difficult personalities, and that can hurt corporate productivity, Brinkman said.

In a bureaucratic environment, for example, employees whine because they feel helpless, he said. Such an atmosphere also leads to negativism: Workers know how things could be done better, but they are embittered because they know change isn't a possibility.

Within a company, Brinkman said, the chairman or president usually sets the tone. At a Seattle software company Brinkman has worked with, the environmentally conscious owners frown on conflict. Anyone who tries to push projects forward with a bulldozer approach is quickly shoved aside. There's no conflict, but little gets done, he said.

Barrie S. Grieff, a Harvard University psychiatrist, has another approach to working with difficult people: Look at the source of the problem. Grieff said there are three reasons why you may not be getting along with someone: You are too similar, you have different values or you are not communicating adequately.

OK, so now you know what the problems are. What are the solutions?

Brinkman and Kirschner list four approaches to dealing with unpleasantness:

* Suffer in silence.

* Look for a new job. Not all situations are resolvable.

* Change your attitude about a difficult person. Decide, for example, that you may not like the individual but you work well together and that's the most important aspect of your relationship.

* Change your behavior, which means the difficult person must learn new ways to deal with you. How is that achieved? Often, using simple techniques that involve reducing the differences between you, or just listening.

A technique that Kirschner and Brinkman identify as "blending" can involve repeating what the colleague has just said to you. That often throws them off balance by forcing them to listen to what you--and they--are saying.

Grieff emphasizes communication--asking others for opinions about the situation and then confronting the person in a friendly manner armed with your new information.

Still, he said, that is an option few people choose, preferring to bluff their way through difficult situations. They feel intimidated, uncomfortable with the idea of a confrontation or are afraid to take risks.

The downsizing and layoffs at many companies have made people less likely to take chances, and problems often escalate, Grieff said.

Corporate mergers have also created fertile breeding ground for conflict, forcing people to work with a whole new group of colleagues, said Mitchell Marks, an organizational psychologist with Delta Consulting Group.

"If you are not happy about the person you are working with, you will hold back information, and that breeds distrust," Grieff said.

But a person who deals with unpleasantness and conflict is usually more effective as a leader, Brinkman and Kirschner say.

The duo, who are holistic physicians, also believe dealing constructively with conflict is a key to good health. Stress from the workplace caused by a difficult co-worker or boss takes an enormous toll on the body, Kirschner said. Indeed, Kirschner and Brinkman say that, with a little practice, handling a difficult personality should be fun, rather than a chore.

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