Toxic Employees on Campus: How to Deal with Know-It-Alls, Whiners & the Bully In the Next Cube


by Pamela Jett, Guest Contributor

Difficult people are everywhere, sometimes even in the next cube.

It is not possible to make the difficult person not be difficult. What we can do is use remarkable communication techniques to train the difficult person that while their difficult behavior may be rewarded by others, it will not be rewarded by us.

One of the most effective techniques is to do the unexpected.

Difficult people – exploders, snipers, steamrollers, and chronic complainers – are used to others responding to them in a predictable fashion.

For example, when an exploder yells he or she is accustomed to having others yell back. They are also used to having others cry, become defensive, or cave in. What they are not expecting is for you to stay calm and to agree with them.

The savvy communicator will look for something to agree with in the exploder’s tirade. The vast majority of exploders are frustrated about something that it is reasonable or rational to become upset over.

The challenge for the exploder is how they choose to express their frustrations. They might scream or yell that a mistake has been made on their account. The savvy manager will stay calm and say something such as “You’re right, this is a serious error and we need to talk about it.” This can catch them off guard and often causes them to settle down and behave in a more emotionally mature fashion.

Another remarkable technique is to use boundary statements. Boundary statements let the difficult person know that you are not going to engage with them if they continue to communicate in an abusive or bullying fashion.

For example, if you are dealing with a hothead you might opt to say “This is important and I want to talk about it, just not this way.”  You might need to repeat this statement a few times. However, by doing so you are sending a clear message that you are not going to engage with them until they are more civil.

You can also use boundary statements to deal with a steamroller. The classic example of a steamroller is a two year old in the store who demands a cookie over and over and over again and simply will not take no for an answer. Their goal is to wear the adult out so that they get their way.

Some people never outgrow this tendency and they are steamrollers as adults and they push and push and push. The goal with a steamroller is to train them that you don’t change your mind simply because they want to outlast you. A useful boundary statement to master is to say “I see it differently – tell me more if you like.”  Of course, a steamroller will tell you more. However, if you consistently tell them you see it differently they will eventually understand that while their steamrolling tactics work with others, they don’t work with you.

One of my favorite remarkable techniques is to make the hidden obvious. This technique is most useful when dealing with a sniper. A sniper is the kind of person who likes to take pot-shots or make snide or clever digs. Most of the time they make their pot-shots in public because they assume you will not have the courage to defy social convention and call them on their inappropriate comments in public. A crucial step in dealing with them is to be willing to call them on their behavior (a form of doing the unexpected) by making the hidden obvious. Here are a few examples:

“Wow, I thought I heard an insult in what you just said. Did you mean it that way?”

“Oh, comments like that sound like you are criticizing my idea. Is that what you intended?”

“It sounds like you are trying to embarrass me in front of our peers. You’re not doing that are you?”

Probing questions are also remarkably useful – particularly when dealing with a chronic complainer. Chronic complainers are often simply looking for someone to reward them by commiserating with them. Instead of commiserating, try saying “I can tell this really bothers you. What do you think ought to be done about it?” or “That is frustrating. What is your plan for dealing with it?” These are often questions they can’t answer. And, if every time they come to you for commiseration you ask them how to solve the problem, they will soon see coming to you as work and they will stop coming to you. Or, and this is even better, they just might come up with a solution and they will have transformed from a chronic complainer to a problem solver.

Pamela Jett is  a communication skills expert, speaker, and author.  She will be presenting an upcoming live webinar discussing these and other employee-communications techniques for university managers.  To learn more, take a look at Pamela’s upcoming webinar with Higher Ed Hero, Toxic Employees on Campus: Taming Know-It-Alls, Whiners & Hostile Workers

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