Dealing with ‘Difficult’ Colleagues Leads to Happier Customers

by Ron Kaufman

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 customers aren’t the only ones who come through an organization’s door every day seeking quality service. Employees and company leaders also need to be served. If they’re not happy, it’s not likely they’ll deliver stellar service, and this is true for people at all levels of an organization. Inevitably, “difficult people” will creep into the work life, disturbing everyone’s workflow and negatively affecting the service provided to customers.

At some point, we are all viewed by our colleagues as the organization’s “difficult person.” That’s why 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.

Characterizing someone as a “difficult person” creates a lose/lose situation. Just as customer relations can view interactions as “there are no difficult customers; there are only difficult customer situations,” relations among co-workers can be viewed as “there are no difficult co-workers; there are only difficult co-worker situations.” And once the company leaders start to think differently about how to manage those difficult situations, everyone can be more satisfied and better served, including employees, management and, most importantly, the customers.

This takes an uplifting service culture change — taking action to create value for someone else. And that “someone else” can be outside or inside the organization. When the entire organization agrees to define the way everyone works 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. When a co-worker is angry, the response “I don’t want to have anything to do with him” will be replaced by the considerations of “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.

Difficult situations can be used  to start building an uplifting service culture in the organization — from the inside out.

Assess the situation carefully. Is a 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 the situation has been assessed, it can be determined whether the person just requires a little personal attention or whether a larger plan must be created.

Shift perspective. Stop thinking of the colleague as “difficult” and start thinking about the difficulty he is experiencing and how you can serve him in his current situation. The reality is that one never really knows all that is going on with another person or what triggered this emotionally upset moment. Once one realizes what a difficult situation means to another person, one 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.

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. One can let a colleague know — as subtly as possible —that being upset, angry, or “difficult” is not the best way to get what she needs by, for instance, starting a conversation with “I care. Help me understand what you are concerned about.” Saying this and then listening is often all that is needed for her anger to fade away. Once the colleague has calmed down, the other person 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 both get to work solving the problem.

Plan how to work together. One way to defuse a difficult situation is to pull out a piece of paper and decide what actions each person will take next. The sooner someone says to an upset colleague, “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. 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 one’s company culture is to role model it oneself. And one can do this from any position in the organization: from the top, the middle or the frontline. Eventually, one’s colleagues will see how he or she handles these situations and how well that approach leads to positive action.

Think about it like this: The “difficult” co-workers anyone encounters on a given workday are simply people seeking service. 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 the company’s service on the outside. And when that happens, everyone at the organization wins.  

Ron Kaufman, author of the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet and 14 other books on service, business and inspiration, is the founder of UP! Your Service (, a global service education and management consultancy firm with offices in the United States and Singapore. He is rated one of the world’s “Top 25 Who’s Hot” speakers by Speaker magazine, and has worked with many of the world’s largest and most respected organizations.


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