Harvard researcher says there are 8 types of 'difficult' people—and passive-aggressive is the 'absolute worst'
Having to work with frustrating people is simply part of life. You can't escape them. But you also don't have to grin and bear the stress as if you have no choice.
While researching for my new book, "Getting Along," I identified eight types of difficult people. The first step to effectively handling these annoying colleagues is to know exactly what kind of person you're dealing with.
1. The Passive-Aggressive is the absolute worst on this list because they are the most common. They'll appear to comply with the needs of others, but will then passively resist following through. Or they might use indirect methods to express their thoughts and feelings, so their intentions are never entirely clear.
2. The Insecure Boss might be a micromanager who drives you up a wall with incessant nitpicking. Or they might be a paranoid meddler who makes you question your every move. They may even intentionally hurt your career if they perceive you as a threat.
3. The Pessimist constantly points out all the ways something can fail. It sometimes seems like they can never find anything positive to say.
4. The Victim is a type of pessimist who feels like everyone is out to get them. They don't take accountability for their actions, and they'll quickly point their fingers at other people when things go wrong.
5. The Know-It-All is convinced that they're the smartest person in the room, hogs airtime, and has no qualms about interrupting others. They gleefully inform you of what's right, even if they're clearly wrong.
6. The Tormentor is someone who has earned their way to the top, typically making sacrifices along the path — only to mistreat others below them. They might be a senior colleague who you expect to be a mentor, but who ends up making your life miserable instead.
7. The Biased knowingly or unknowingly commits microaggressions. No matter what they think their intention is with these comments, their behavior is inappropriate and harmful.
8. The Political Operator is laser focused on advancing their own career — but at your expense. Of course, engaging in office politics is often unavoidable, but this person is fixated on getting ahead and has a take-no-prisoners approach to doing so.
Passive aggression is one of the most frustrating behaviors I see in offices because it can be so hard to pin down and ultimately fix.
But there are some tips you can use to nudge your colleague to interact with you in a more productive, straightforward way.
1. Don't label them as "passive-aggressive."
"Stop being so passive aggressive!" is a loaded phrase that will only make things worse. I'd be shocked if your colleague said, "Yeah, you're right. I'll stop."
It's more likely that this request would make them even more angry and defensive, which will stop any sort of positive communication in its tracks.
2. Focus on the content, not the delivery.
Before reacting to a passive aggressive comment, ask yourself: What is the underlying idea they're attempting to convey? Do they think that the way you're running a project isn't working? Or do they disagree with the team's goals?
If you can focus on the real concern or question hidden beneath that snarky comment, you can find a way address the actual problem in a way that works for everyone.
3. Figure out what the other person cares about.
Of course, you still may not fully understand what your coworker wants. But spend some time thinking about possible explanations. Just like during negotiations, assess the other person's interests. What do they care about? What do they want to achieve?
Then do what psychology professor Gabrielle Adams calls "hypothesis testing": Ask — respectfully and without judgment — about what's going on. You might say, "I've noticed that you haven't been responding to my emails. Is there something wrong?"
4. Call attention to what's happening.
With this tactic, it's best to stick to facts — the things you know for sure — without emotion or exaggeration.
For example: "You said you wanted to help with this project and you haven't joined the three meetings we've had so far. You also didn't respond to the email I sent last week about next steps."
Then explain how their actions affected you: "I'm disappointed and stressed out because I'm not able to do all of the work myself, and I had hoped to have your help."
Finally, the tricky part: Make a straightforward request. "If you're still interested in helping out, and I hope you are, I'd like you to attend the meetings. If not, I need to know so I can find an alternative solution."
Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and a co-host of HBR's Women at Work podcast. She is the author of "Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People)" and the "HBR Guide to Dealing With Conflict." Follow her on Twitter @amyegallo.
Ash Lamb is an illustrator and designer based in Barcelona, Spain. He spends his time deconstructing and illustrating ideas for creative entrepreneurs. You can find more of his work at visualgrowth.com, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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