I was recently asked a few colleagues who were working in various fields of education to describe the most difficult people they had ever worked with. Without hesitation, each one could immediately recall obnoxious colleagues and subordinates with whom they have had to deal at some stage in their working lives.
Yet, when I asked them to tell me how they had handled these people, there was usually a shrug of the shoulders or a shake of the head. Regardless of whether it was a peer, department head, or subordinate whose behaviour was difficult, people were generally at a loss to recommend an appropriate strategy for dealing with the situation.
Some said that they simply didn’t know what to do, and tried to ignore the issues. Others said they did not want to appear to be a bully, while others were too afraid to “stir the pot” or to engage in any conflict.
However, avoidance is usually not the most effective conflict management style. Appropriately dealing with conflict and other personnel issues, can improve workplace culture, productivity and morale.
Imagine yourself in the following three scenarios. What would you do?
Harriett – the Meeting Hogger
Harriett is on a number of committees and has a senior role in school administration. She has an excellent memory and is very intelligent. Harriett has worked in the school for a long time, and knows the history and culture of the organisation. The problem is that she likes to talk at length about every issue on meeting agendas. During meetings, questions are often referred to her, owing to her wealth of school-wide knowledge, but much of what she says is not relevant to the subject at hand.
What could be answered with a brief response often results in a long-winded, thorough explanation, outlining the history of the matter instead. Harriett loves the sound of her own voice. Meetings often run over-time and after-hours.
Leah – the Lazy, yet Cunning, Personal Assistant
Leah is very good at delegating tasks to others. When you hired her, as Personal Assistant to the Principal, you thought that her assertive manner of delegating was a positive trait, engendering independence and initiative in others. However, now that you have to order your own stationery, photocopy the letters to send to school families and do much of your own filing, you have
begun to wonder how she fills the rest of her time. You’ve dis- covered that when you walk past her desk she is often either up- dating her Facebook status, attending to her role as soccer club president, reading text books relating to her part-time TAFE studies, or has wedding-planning websites open on her desk-top, organising bridal party attire or searching for honeymoon destinations.
William – the Workplace Bully
You wonder whether William has some serious emotional disturbance. His moods are erratic. One moment he is friendly and chatty and the next you receive the cold-shoulder treatment. He has spread false rumours about some colleagues in his department and frequently talks about others behind their backs (or behind closed doors). One female staff member has already re- signed after finding a knife stabbed upright into her desk. This threatening behavior occurred the morning after a heated argument with William, during which time, he threw a stapler across the room. When the staff member complained to her Head of School, his response was that she should ignore William, saying, “He simply behaves this way to get attention.”
These three scenarios require the application of three basic managerial principles. The fundamentals for dealing with “tricky people issues” are:
• Always remain sensitive to the person, and address the situation or behaviour, not the person themselves or their character
• Be direct, honest and open and try not to beat around the bush. Subtlety just doesn’t work with some people
• Maintain boundaries – be firm and maintain your personal standards and boundaries as well as your school’s Code of Conduct expectations.
Let’s now apply these general principles to the three earlier cases.
When dealing with Harriett, the first and most basic question to ask is, does she really need to be a member of so many committees and attend so many meetings? The problem can easily be solved by simply reducing the number of sessions that she must personally attend. Any important background information can be obtained from her prior to the meeting, with appropriate acknowledgment given publicly to her expert contribution. By controlling Harriet in this way, valuable time can be salvaged and group motivation restored.
If Harriett’s attendance is required at meetings, then the role of the chairperson must be to ensure that all attendees are given the opportunity to contribute, and that no one person is permit- ted to hold the floor for an unreasonably long time. If you are the chairperson, perhaps you will need to quite deliberately interrupt her and say, “Thank you Harriett for outlining all of the background information, but I will ask you now to sum up the important points for us in just a minute or two. We have a long agenda today, and we have to move on.”
If her usual over-lengthy responses continue during other items of discussion, you need to repeat, quite assertively, the need for summary dot points, or be even more direct: “Harriett, I notice that you have led our discussion for quite a lot of the time and I thank you for your contribution. I would now like to give others the opportunity to participate, and will accordingly open the matter for general discussion.”
If you are not the chairperson, but a frustrated attendee, forced to repeatedly suffer in silence, then it would be appropriate to have a word to the Chairperson prior to the meeting, outlining what you have observed at previous meetings and suggesting re- medial strategies for the Chair to follow.
What about our lazy personal assistant? It seems that her own personal time management has been very effective, but at the expense of the time management for which she is being paid. She has cunningly managed to attend to many of her personal tasks in the school’s time. If Leah is not one of your own direct staff members, you may be tempted to think “Oh well, it’s really none of my business. I don’t think I’ll bother saying anything.” However, if you and others are having to undertake tasks that are more appropriately part of her job description, then clearly it is your business. Your school’s overall productivity and efficiency should be everyone’s business. Leah is misappropriating the school’s time, and should be told so directly, so have a quiet word to her supervisor about your observations and offer some suggestions. If she is your subordinate, then it is important to intervene at an early stage, before the behaviour escalates. So bite the bullet, and next time you ask Leah to attend to a request and she indicates that she’s happy for you to do it instead, do not accept this behaviour. Remind her assertively that for overall school organisational efficiency, it is more productive if she attended to the tasks for which she is being paid, and then give her a deadline by which to complete the assignment.
And finally, how would you deal with William? William’s behaviour is simply unacceptable. He is a workplace bully who has learnt how to effectively manipulate people and circumstances, in order to get what he wants. His violent behaviour (throwing the stapler) and the implied personal threat (the knife in the desk) are serious incidents requiring immediate managerial attention. William’s Head of Department should not have ignored this behaviour. At a minimum, these dangerous and violent actions warrant a performance counselling interview and official warning. Depending on your school’s Code of Conduct, instant dismissal may be appropriate. If the knife in the desk is interpreted as a threat of personal harm, the police should be called to investigate. If your supervisor is unwilling to undertake action in this regard, you should take your complaint to the Principal or Head of School. If you are concerned about potential persecution for disclosing inappropriate behavior, it is worth noting that both state and federal legislation provide protection for ‘whistle-blowers’ against reprisals. The term whistle blower has several meanings, but according to the Australian Securities and Investment Corporation (ASIC), it is usually used to refer to someone who alerts the authorities to misconduct from within an organisation. These three scenarios have addressed some common work- place issues. Dealing with staff can be tricky at times. The key to effectively managing others and gaining their esteem, is to ensure that you behave in a respectful, yet assertive manner. This way, your needs, as well as the needs of the school and other staff, will be met appropriately.
About the Author
Mrs Wendy Collins is a Chartered Accountant and lecturer in the School of Business, at Christian Heritage College, in Brisbane. She has a Bachelor of Commerce Degree, a Masters degree of Management and a Graduate Diploma of Education (FET). Her special interests are in Accounting, Business Planning and Business Communication.