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How to deal with difficult people and avoid damaging your career.

During my PhD program, I had a lab technician who was cranky and the furthest from being a 'people-person' as possible. This person's office was next to mine. I saw them in the morning, so I would always say, "Good morning!" and proceed to my office. I never received a reply, just a scowl. One morning they said, "Why do you always say 'good morning' to me?" I replied that I did it because it was the polite thing to do. They looked me up and down and said, "Well, don't do it anymore because it is annoying," and stormed off. I didn't ever say 'good morning' to this person again. I chose to ignore them because they had no control or say-so in my job or education. 

But what do you do when someone does have control or say so over your job? 

There are many reasons why people are challenging to deal with. They may be experiencing family, health, or financial challenges. Perhaps they want to make a point or exert their perceived power over you. Ultimately, it is not your job to understand why these people are being difficult. However, it is your job to know how to navigate the situation so it doesn't harm your career. 

Despite your attitude of professional grace or understanding of navigating difficult conversations , students, colleagues, and administrators can be challenging to interact with. The first step is to make a frank assessment of whether their behavior hinders your job. If people are unpleasant but do not hinder your job or actions, then the best course is simple. Ignore them. If you don't have to interact with them to do your job, don't. 

However, when a problematic person does hinder your career, you must:

  1. Devise a strategy to work with or go around the individual. 

  2. Think about what you need to accomplish your goal,

  3. Determine what your desired result looks like.

As you develop your strategy, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1) Remember your priorities. 

In most cases, your priority is getting the result that accomplishes your goal. Develop a strategy focusing on getting the desired result. It's unnecessary to get the person to like you or change their problematic behavior. Your priority is your job (and career), not trying to change the person.

2) Continue to exercise professional grace. 

There is a saying: "Hurt people hurt people". Some problematic people purposefully mistreat others. Regardless of rank, don't allow this behavior. In all your efforts, set parameters and refuse to be bullied, coerced, intimidated, or treated unprofessionally. If a problematic person uses unprofessional tactics, say, "I do not appreciate that you are trying to (bully/intimidate/etc.) me, and if you cannot act professionally, then we'll have to find another way to deal with this issue" If they continue their poor behavior, walk away even if they are your superior.

If someone is stonewalling you and won't meet you in person, email your request stating that you will await a response within a specific time. This approach commits your request to writing and will give you the documentation needed to show that you are trying to solve this issue. In addition, email has the advantage of not requiring a face-to-face meeting.

3) Be clear. 

What do you need to achieve your goal? Ask the person for what you need. For example, if you need a form signed so one of your students can graduate state that the form needs to be signed and ask the person to sign it. If they refuse to sign the form and don't give you a good reason for their non-compliance, leave and begin the documentation process mentioned below. Once you have made your request known, if they choose not to comply, it will be futile to continue the meeting to change their mind. 

4) Start a formal documentation process. 

If you receive no response from an email or when requesting an in-person meeting, create a timeline and document your attempts to reach out to the person. 

5) Move up the chain of command. 

If you do not receive a response or resolution, your next option is to speak to their superior. However, you must show that you've made a reasonable faith effort to resolve the issue personally (step 3 above) and have documentation. (step 4 above). Everyone has someone above them, so there is always someone you can speak to. You can contact a program coordinator or department chair if you are having challenges with a difficult student. If a colleague hinders your job, you can go to your department chair; if it is your department chair, go to your Dean.

In academia, you will always have to deal with a wide variety of people with various viewpoints, attitudes, and issues. The majority of these people are great to work with and, in my experience, will go out of their way to help you accomplish what you need for your job. 

When you remember to consider your priorities and maintain your professional grace you will discover that it is possible to deal with difficult people, get your job done, and not damage your career! 


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