Gary is a great teacher. His results are excellent. You can’t fault his work ethic. He even led the school trip to Wales. But Gary is a problem. He snipes at colleagues and makes inappropriate comments in the corridors. He is what Jody J Foster, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, would call a “difficult person at work”.
Foster has done a lot of research into those people who are the oil in the water of an organisation: staff who seem to irritate, wind up, upset, frustrate and generally unsettle others while failing to be “one of the team”. In her new book, The Schmuck in My Office: how to deal effectively with difficult people at work, she identifies 10 versions of a difficult person. And she’s clear that however good that person may be at their job, leaders – including school leaders – have to act.
The 10 types of difficult person she identifies are as follows: Narcissus, venus flytrap, swindler, bean counter, distracted, Mr Hyde, lost, robotic, eccentric and suspicious. “I think that the most difficult or the scariest has been the suspicious character because they’re so easily offended or made worried,” says Foster.
“They’re paranoid, basically.”
The temptation in a case like Gary’s (a fictitious example based on anecdotes from various school leaders) is to “manage” the difficult behaviour by “keeping an eye on it”. That usually means putting off a confrontation, talking around the issue in the hope that the difficult colleague gets the gist, or downplaying the effect of the behaviour because you fear escalation would make the problems worse. Alternatively, a leader might not believe the issues are actually as bad as reported.
“We seem to have endless patience to talk about a person and situation for days and months instead of anybody going up to the person and telling them that what they’re doing is a problem,” says Foster.
Her “crusade” is to persuade people at work to talk “directly and honestly” with each other, rather than to make the mistake of not saying anything. Avoiding the issue makes things worse, she argues.
“When we don’t say something and we just talk about it and let it seethe, that’s when we decide that people are jerks or schmucks or whatever we want to call it,” she says. “It seethes like a virus and sometimes just calling it out in the moment or soon thereafter will just nip it in the bud.”
In doing so, it is important to recognise that the behaviour you are calling out is unacceptable in the environment in which you work, not necessarily unacceptable in general. “What’s disruptive in one culture may be perfectly acceptable in another, so when you’re in a particular environment you have to clearly lay out the rules of engagement,” she argues.
As well as not saying anything to the difficult person, another mistake people make, according to Foster, is to “assume malice”.
“So when somebody is behaving badly or upsetting them, the first go-to emotion is: ‘This person is harming me, he’s a jerk, he’s abusing me’. Me, me me, me, me, instead of taking a step back and thinking, ‘Wow, this person is acting so badly. What would drive a person to say that?’” says Foster.
Leaders have to separate the emotion and the incident, and do the due diligence. If we can stop taking the behaviour personally and look at the bad actor “holistically”, we can start to see themes in how they act, she argues.
For example: “‘This person is conceited and I noticed that whenever he feels like he’s been taken down a notch, he gets really aggressive.’
When you figure that out, you can say, ‘Okay, this person is afraid of being discovered for being a fraud or not so smart, or not so effective. Maybe, moving forward, the way to handle this person is to be a little more complimentary, point out when he does things right, just so he feels appreciated.’”
Taking an assertive approach is something Foster recommends, even if the difficult person is not one of the staff but one of those above you, such as a chair of governors or an executive head. And leaders should expect their staff to confront them if their own behaviour is poor, too.
“I’m not going to tell people to willy-nilly run into their boss’s office and say ‘Hey, you’re a jerk’ because obviously that can put some people at risk,” she says. “But a carefully considered word and nuanced approach to telling a boss that what he or she is doing is causing a problem for you, and perhaps affecting your ability to work or your enjoyment of the work? For most bosses, they’re going to take that under advisement even if they meet it with defensiveness in the moment.”
The whole point, as Foster explains, is to create a “safe place” to give and receive feedback. For this to happen, school leaders need to set out clear expectations for staff and quickly address any behaviour that breaches those expectations – and keep an eye on their own behaviour, too.
Andrew Hankinson is a freelance journalist