Dealing with a Difficult Person at Work
When someone treats you in a nasty or offensive manner, it’s understandable that you’d see the person as nasty or offensive. Sometimes, though, there’s more to the person—and the situation—than it appears.
That was my experience when I worked with a division manager, Charlie, who was the most challenging customer I ever worked with. My department was developing an insidiously complex system for Charlie, and the project faced an inflexible deadline mandated by regulatory requirements.
Right from the start, Charlie was stubborn, impatient, rigid, demanding, and highly insulting. No matter what I told him about our progress and how we were right on schedule, he accused me of lying. Week after week, he made me the target of his verbal abuse.
We did implement phase one on time. Shortly after we embarked on the next phase, I heard that Charlie had been transferred to another division. His replacement was as easy to work with as Charlie had been difficult. I didn’t see Charlie for a few months after that. Then one day, I ran into him by the elevator. He greeted me as though we didn’t have a shared miserable past, followed by, “I don’t know if you heard, but I was transferred to another division.”
And then he said something that completely changed my view of him. He said, “I am so glad to be out of that division. I was under such intense stress. So much pressure. Nonstop demands. It was miserable, just awful. I’m so happy to finally be in a position where I have some control over my existence.”
In that moment, Charlie transformed in my eyes from a tyrant into a person who had been suffering just as I had been, with his management hounding him just as he had hounded me. I realized for the first time that he’d been genuinely frightened that we, and therefore he, wouldn’t make a critical deadline. He took his fear out on me, and he very likely was unaware of how miserably he had treated me.
That didn’t excuse his offensive behavior, but it helped to explain it. What an eye-opener. Charlie wasn’t a jerk; he was a regular guy doing his best to cope with a tough situation.
As a result of that conversation, I came to realize that sometimes, when a person behaves in a hurtful or offensive manner, it’s not the totality of that person’s character. Sometimes, the person is instead coping with circumstances that I’m not aware of. That’s something to keep in mind if you ever face a similar situation.