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Inside Job: Why Dealing with ‘Difficult’ Colleagues Will Lead to Happier Customers

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Too often, organizations promise satisfaction to external customers and then allow internal politics to frustrate their employees’ good intentions to deliver. It’s important to remember that your customers aren’t the only ones who come through your organization’s door every day seeking quality service. Your coworkers and leaders also need to be served. If they’re not happy, it’s not likely they’ll deliver stellar service, and the same goes for you. Inevitably, “difficult people” will creep into your work life, disturbing your, your colleagues’, and your leaders’ workflow and negatively affecting the service you all provide your customers.

Ron Kaufman, author of the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet says it’s important that we find a way to provide uplifting service internally all the time…even (and especially!) when difficult situations arise so internal tiffs don’t lead to rifts with customers.

“Once you’ve characterized someone as a ‘difficult person,’ you’re already in a lose, lose situation,” says Kaufman. “It’s like my view on difficult customers: There are no difficult customers; there are only difficult customer situations. Similarly, there are no difficult coworkers. There are only difficult coworker situations. And once you start to think differently about how to manage those difficult situations, everyone can be more satisfied and better served, including you, your colleagues, and most importantly, your customers.”

What Kaufman is talking about is an uplifting service culture change. In Uplifting Service, he writes that service is taking action to create value for someone else, and that “someone else” can be outside or inside your organization.

“When the entire organization agrees to define the way they work together using this definition of service, everyone will be able to focus on creating value and serving each other better, which leads to better external service,” says Kaufman. “Instead of seeing an angry coworker and not wanting to have anything to do with him, you will naturally stop and think, What does this person value? What is he not getting that he needs? What can I do now to serve him better? When this culture of service takes hold in the organization, everyone feels better and works better together.”

Read on for Kaufman’s advice on how you can use difficult situations to start building an uplifting service culture in your organization…from the inside out.

Assess the situation carefully. Is your colleague deeply upset or simply having a bad day? Is she angry about an ongoing internal issue that must be addressed and solved, or a one-off situation like a presentation gone wrong? Is this a process problem that persistently provokes, or a one-time irritation that will naturally fade away? “Once you have assessed the situation,” notes Kaufman, “you can then determine whether the person just requires a little personal attention from you—or whether a larger plan must be created.”

Shift your perspective. Stop thinking of your colleague as “difficult” and start thinking about the difficulty he is experiencing, and how you can serve him in his current situation. What is it he is concerned, disturbed, or upset about that’s leading to his behavior?

Once you realize what a difficult situation means to another person, you can approach the issue with more compassion, generosity, empathy, and patience. This is far more effective for both parties than concluding that another person is difficult all the time or is always overreacting.

“The reality is that you never really know all that is going on with another person, with his family’s health or his financial situation,” notes Kaufman. “You don’t know what happened at his home that morning or the night before. You don’t really know what triggered this emotionally upset moment. You can therefore decide, Let me choose compassion for this person instead of judgment and start exercising empathy.”

Lean in and work on the problem together. A “difficult” person often behaves that way because she is trying to get something she needs, or is trying to make something happen. She probably thinks the only way she can get her colleagues’ attention is by outwardly showing her anger. But we know from experience that the way to get better service is to be a better customer. And the same goes for getting the help we all want from our colleagues.

“Let your colleague know—as subtly as possible—that being upset, angry, or ‘difficult’ is not the best way to get what she needs,” suggests Kaufman. “You can start by saying, ‘I care. Help me understand what you are concerned about.’ By saying this and then listening, often her anger will fade away. Once your colleague has calmed down, you can say, ‘Thank you for explaining this to me. Let’s solve this problem together. It’s not us or them. It’s just us.’ And then you can both get to work solving the problem.”

Plan how you’ll work together. One way to defuse a difficult situation is to pull out a piece of paper and decide what actions each of you will take next. This helps remove emotional tension and gets everyone down to work.

“The sooner you say, ‘Let’s figure this thing out. What action can I take that will create value for you? Let’s agree on next steps. Let’s make some promises to each other,’ the better,” says Kaufman. “Working this way creates a culture of colleagues taking action to create value for each other. It takes emotion out of the equation and creates a platform where people can work more effectively with each other.”

Role model the right behavior. One of the best ways to make this behavior a part of your company culture is to role model it yourself. And you can do this from any position in the organization: from the top, the middle, or the frontline. Eventually, your colleagues will see how you handle these situations and how well your approach leads to positive action.

“When others see that problems don’t need to be painful, that emotions don’t need to be escalated, they’ll realize that ‘difficult situations’ don’t need to consume all your energy, or your entire day,” notes Kaufman. “As more and more people inside your organization take this approach, they will recognize this is what the culture is becoming, this is what our company really is. Everyone will see that this approach really works, and everyone will want to take part.”

“Think about it like this: The ‘difficult’ coworkers you encounter on a given workday are simply people seeking service,” says Kaufman. “Being able to recognize and reconcile those situations internally is just as important as being able to recognize when a customer interaction has gone south. With surprising service coming from the inside, it’s easier to step up your service on the outside. And when that happens, everyone at the organization wins.”

For more information, visit www.UpliftingService.com.

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