Category Archives: Self-management

Dealing with “Difficult” Co-workers

We all have coworkers who rub us the wrong way, get on our nerves, and generally drive us crazy.

Let’s consider these examples of three people who have difficult coworkers:

1. Ted finished working on a difficult bit of code and headed for the team meeting. When he got there, Sandy looked at her watch and glared at him. “You’re late,” she snapped. “Hey, it’s only ten after,” Ted responded.

How selfish! Sandy thought to herself. Ted has no respect for other people’s time.

Meanwhile, Ted wondered why Sandy made such a big deal about arriving precisely on time. It’s hard to put down what I’m working on when I’m in the middle of something important. What’s more important, anyway?  Getting the code done so we can release this fix or coming to a  meeting? Why doesn’t Sandy understand that?

2. When the technicians showed up to install more memory in Frank’s computer, Frank asked Talia if he could use her machine, since she was going to a meeting. “Sure,” Talia replied. When she returned to her cube and logged into her computer, she discovered that Frank had changed the settings. She spent half-an-hour fixing the obvious ones, and stumbled over more of Frank’s little “fixes” for the rest of the day.

Sheesh, thought Talia. He asks to use my computer for an hour, and he acts like it’s his. I’m never letting him use my computer again. I wonder if he read my mail, too.

Frank, however, was pleased that he’d set up several helpful shortcuts on Talia’s machine.

3. Sam greeted Jennifer with a cheery hello as he entered her office. “How was your weekend,” he asked. “Did you do anything fun with the family?” Jennifer scowled. “Let’s get down to business, Sam,” she said.

What a grouch, Sam thought. I’m just trying to be friendly and build a working relationship.

Jennifer, on the other hand, wondered why Sam was so nosey. Doesn’t he get that I don’t want to discuss my private life at work? I don’t want to talk about having to take Chad for a psych evaluation over the weekend.

No one in these examples is a bad person. They aren’t wrong or behaving atrociously. But Ted, Frank, and Jennifer are acting in ways that are different from how Sandy, Talia, and Sam expect people to act.

The opposite is true, too: Sandy, Talia, and Sam are acting in ways that Ted, Frank, and Jennifer find puzzling and irritating.

Conflicting Definitions of Appropriate Behavior

We find other people difficult when they don’t meet our expectations of “appropriate” behavior. The trouble is that each of us has a different definition of “appropriate.” To further complicate matters, some areas of mismatched expectations are easy to see and comment on, but others aren’t.

In the first example, Ted and Sandy have different ideas about how important it is to arrive exactly on time. Sandy believes that not arriving on time shows disrespect for the group. Ted believes it’s more important to accommodate individual needs and be “close to on time.” These mismatches are easy to spot and most people are able to reach some accommodation because there is some external reference point: the clock and the agreed upon meeting time.

Other mismatches are about personal space, personal property, and privacy. What may seem like friendly conversation to one person may seem like prying to another, as in the example with Sam and Jennifer. Fred doesn’t view Talia’s computer as “hers.” To him, it’s company property and, therefore, belongs as much to him as to anyone else who works in the group. There’s no external reference point for these.

Each individual has his own idea of what’s appropriate. Psychologists call them “boundaries.” But, unlike boundaries on maps, we don’t always know where our boundary lines are until someone crosses them. Others don’t know where our boundary lines are unless we tell them.

Deal with Difficult People Where You Have the Most Leverage

We can hope that people we find difficult will realize how unreasonable they are and will change on their own, but they won’t. They won’t wake up and change because they don’t see themselves as difficult or inappropriate. These troublesome (to us) people believe they are acting in a reasonable way. In fact, they may wonder why other people are so upset.

To deal with difficult people more effectively, start where you have leverage. Start with you. When you feel yourself becoming upset, ask yourself if you’ve been clear in what you expected from the other person. Check on your emotional response. If you are having a strong response and wondering why the other person doesn’t get it, it may be a clue that someone just walked all over your boundary lines for acceptable behavior.

Understanding why people drive us to distraction at work doesn’t mean you have to tolerate behavior that you find distressing. Talia could set a boundary with Frank by saying something like “Frank, it’s fine for you to use my computer as long as you return the settings to my preferences when you’re done.” You can always make a request for a change—not for the other person to fix herself, but to respect your boundaries or find a third way that will work for both of you.

Life is too short to let the people we work with fray our nerves. We can’t change those irritating people, but we can recognize the source of our irritation and change our own response.

An slightly different version of this article appeared on

Bully Boss

A recent phone call reminded me of this article that I wrote in 2004. The story is real, the names are not. It’s a story that is all too common.


Not too long ago, I had lunch with my friend Sarah. I hadn’t seen her in a while, so I was surprised when she mentioned that she was leaving the company she has been with for almost ten years. The developers, testers, and other managers at this company respect her, and she loves what she does. Her workplace sounds ideal. So, why is Sarah leaving?

Sarah isn’t leaving for a more prestigious position or a higher salary; her boss is driving her out the door. Sarah’s manager blows up when things don’t go the way he wants them to, and she has had enough. “I’m tired of being screamed at,” Sarah said. “Life is too short.”

Sarah’s not the only one who has had to deal with a hostile boss. According to an article in American Way, “42% of US workers reported incidents of yelling and verbal abuse in their workplace.” While some people may feel they have to accept abusive behavior from bosses in order to keep their job, I agree with Sarah: Life is too short.

The Costs of Yelling and Verbal Abuse

Some people I talk to dismiss my concerns about workplace abuse. They tell me I’m too sensitive. “It’s just Frank,” they say. “He blows up, and then it blows over. Nobody takes it seriously.” But there are costs.

People who work for abusive managers often have stress-related problems and illnesses. They miss work due to symptoms, and they are less productive when they are at work. Their energy isn’t going into building software; it’s going into dealing with the emotional fallout of their manager’s behavior.

Yellers also drive attrition – turnover is higher, and it’s harder to entice internal candidates to work for a manager who has a reputation for outbursts and abuse. Many people would rather walk out the door than work for an abusive boss. The people who do stay may feel trapped by the job market or their own beaten-down self-esteem. People who feel trapped or beaten-down are not productive workers.

In my experience, abusive managers fall into three categories. How you handle the situation depends on which kind of screamer you’re up against.


Strange as it may seem, I’ve actually met managers who were not even aware they were yelling. Some people come from families where yelling is part of their “normal” communication. They see yelling as expressive, not aggressive. They may not be aware of the effect their yelling has on other people.


Some managers believe that people are basically lazy and will not work without coercion and threats of punishment. This view is called “Theory X” management. It doesn’t work. I don’t hear many developers or testers say, “I work better when I’m a little afraid. If my boss didn’t threaten me, I’d never get a thing done!” But some managers believe that this is the case. People who hold this view see yelling and threats as appropriate management action.

Sometimes yelling works in the short-term, as people will do what the yeller wants to get him to stop yelling, or keep him for yelling again.  This reinforces the yeller’s mental model of management.  He seldom looks at the other effects of his management methods: stress, illness, information hiding, lack of engagement.


Some people are not able to manage their emotions and responses. These are the bosses that react disproportionately, blow up, vent, swear (we’re not talking the occasional “Oh, %#@!”),and generally fly off the handle.

What You Can Do

If your manager is the Out-of-Control variety, you can try solve the problem by working with HR.

When your manager becomes abusive, stand up, state that you will not tolerate verbal abuse, and leave the room. Go to HR and file a formal complaint. Keep in mind that HR’s job is to protect the company’s interests, not yours. In my experience, the higher in the management chain the abuser is, the less likely HR will take action. The company has probably tacitly accepted his behavior for years, but when there are multiple complaints on file, HR may decide that it is in the company’s best interest to deal with the abuser. If there are witnesses to the abuse, talk to them about corroborating your account. And be prepared for an tense and uncomfortable patch while the process works out.

You may be able to manage this situation by making your own power move. Bring a recorder to your next meeting. Don’t hide it. (That could lead to some other problems.) Be quite open, put the recorder on the desk and say “I’m going to record our conversation, so I don’t have to rely on my memory to recall all the important things you have to say.” Start the recorder. This reduces the chance that your manager will yell. And if she does, it’s on tape.

Rarely, I hear from someone who has found a way to survive an abusive boss.  They manage to cope and let it roll off their backs.  The fact that you can’t let it roll off yours doesn’t mean you are too sensitive, thin-skinned, or weak.

Threats of physical harm, retribution, and personal attacks are well over the line. Verbal abuse is never acceptable.

People who cannot manage themselves should not manage others.

No ifs, ands, or buts. No excuses. End of discussion.

Sometimes the HR department isn’t willing to take any action. Consider what you are willing to live with, and start examining your options for another position, in or out of the company, and make an exit. If you do leave, state your reasons for leaving in the exit interview.

There’s more hope for managers who aren’t out of control. Start with the most generous interpretation and the smallest intervention.

Assume your manager isn’t aware that he’s yelling. Comment on the yelling and the effect it’s having on you. In a calm voice say, “What you have to say is important to me, but I can’t hear you when you’re yelling.” This may be enough to jolt the yeller into awareness.

A manager who continues to yell may be a Theory X Manager. You probably won’t change his mind, but you might change his behavior. State again that it’s important that you hear what he has to say, but right now you can’t because of his yelling. State that you will reschedule the meeting for later in the day, and then leave the room. When you meet again, tell him the effect that his yelling has on you. Request that meetings and conversations take place in a normal tone of voice. If that fails, consider bringing a recorder to meetings, and contact HR.

Employees have a right to be treated with respect and dignity in the workplace. Many mega-decibel managers cease and desist when faced with resistance. When you encounter an abusive manager, hold on to your self-esteem, take action, and decide whether the paycheck is worth the price.


Reader Jerry Conklin sent this response when the article was originally published (posted with permission):

The manager who uses his position to bully employees is pathetic and worse than useless. The negative effect of such people is powerful. This kind of bullying behavior has produces human misery and project failure. Such people need to be weeded out of management.

Like all bullies, the bullying manager hates himself. Since he cannot face that fact, he uses whatever power he has to dump that hate on anyone perceived as weak and vulnerable. At bottom, he is a cringing coward and can generally be seen to grovel before his superiors. He is drven by fear.

The main responsibility of any manager is to remove obstacles to productivity not to create them. The fulfillment of such a responsibility requires character, integrity and courage. The bullying manager is often tolerated because she has high technical qualifications. When someone has shown herself to have the cited leadership traits, then we can talk about technical capability. The bully is a weakling who is, by definition, devoid of the character traits necessary to lead people.

Well said, Jerry.

Also check out Bob Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule.

An earlier version of this article appeared on

The Blame Game

No one likes to be blamed, so why do we blame each other in the first place? What place does it have in our relationships, and how does it affect our problem-solving abilities? A personal experience with customer disservice to highlight our attraction to assigning blame and how it delays us from reaching solutions.

Not long ago, I took my dog to the boarding kennel as I was leaving for a business trip. Usually she stays at home, but this time my husband was going to be out of town, too.

“Can I help you?” the receptionist asked. “I’m here to drop Pudge off for boarding,” I replied, expecting I’d spend minutes to sign the papers, give Pudge a goodbye pat, and head to the airport.

The receptionist pulled up a computer screen and examined it. Then she looked a paper file. “You’re not supposed to be here today. Your reservation is for next week on the 28th,” she declared.

Oh, crap, I thought. This could be a real problem. The first thing to do is determine whether they can fit her in. If not, I need to start making phone calls right away.

“Oh, dear,” I said out loud. “That’s odd. I was sure I made the reservation for today. Is there room to board Pudge for next three days?”

“You’re wrong,” the receptionist asserted. “Your reservation is for the 28th.”

Let’s skip the fact that this exchange is not a stellar example of customer service. What was really interesting to me was that the receptionist insisted on telling me I was wrong, even in the face of the evidence that I was there and had a plane to catch. I wasn’t particularly interested in assigning blame; I wanted to move on to Plan B if I needed to, make sure my dog would be cared for, and make my flight.

What is Blame?

The dictionary definition of “blame” is to find fault with or hold responsible. There certainly are times when people in organizations need to hold people responsible for when their actions cause problems. From a psychological perspective, though, blame is a defense mechanism. It makes the blamer feel powerful by making the person being blamed feel small. But blaming a person (or a system) for a problem gets in the way of solving a problem.

The High Price of Blame

When blame is the default behavior in an organization, bad things happen.

People withhold information because the fear how they’ll be treated when they bring up problems. That makes it harder for anyone to actually solve problems. Of course, problems can’t hide forever. When the information finally comes out, the problems are usually bigger and the options to solve them fewer.

People invest energy making sure that they won’t be blamed when a problem arises (as problems inevitably do). That leads to paper trails, positioning, and creating plausible deniability.

Once problems do surface, people are scared or disengaged and don’t offer their best ideas. That makes it more likely that the fix will be a band-aid that soothes symptoms, but doesn’t address root causes.

When blame is the knee-jerk response, people don’t learn from problems and mistakes. The may try something different, but it won’t be from a deep understanding of the situation. They’ll try the least risky action that will protect them from more blame.

All this makes it more likely that it will take longer for problems to become visible—at which point they will be even hairier and harder to fix, creating a vicious cycle.

Shifting the Blame Dynamic

When someone brings a problem to you, you have a choice. You can blame, or you can engage in problem-solving.

First, slow down and become aware of your own response. Are you feeling scared or angry? Are you worried that you will be blamed? Blaming the messenger won’t change whether someone else will blame you. But, if you move to problem-solving, you will be able to communicate what you plan to do, not just bring bad news.

Ask questions—using a neutral tone of voice—to understand the issue and implications. Questions that start with What and How are likely to sound less blaming than questions that start with Why. (Assuming you don’t ask “What the heck were you thinking?” or “How did you make this mess?” Those questions would not be helpful.)

Figure out what to do about the immediate issue. Ask if the person who brought the problem needs help. If she doesn’t need (or want help), don’t inflict it. Agree on how you’ll assess progress solving the problem.

Ask for the help you need to explain the implications to others.

Later (but not much later), you can investigate root causes. Don’t assume that it’s a problem with the individual; the issue may very well be a system problem. There may be other lessons to learn from the problem—for example, how to set expectations, how to break work into inch pebbles, and how to make progress (and problems) more visible. Be careful of your phrasing. Keep it neutral and on an adult-to-adult level. “What did you learn from this” can sound like a parent or teacher speaking to a child. And don’t call it a “teachable moment”—that phrase smacks of condescension.

In organizations where blame is pervasive, blame is the systemic issue. The only way to work out of blame orientation is to choose not to blame. Instead, demonstrate problem-solving, and gradually rebuild trust with those with whom you work directly.

There are times when we do have to hold individuals responsible for their actions. But usually it’s more important to fix the problem and learn from the situation.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of blame, do your best to stay centered and move toward problem-solving. Articulate what you know about the problem, what you have tried, and where you need help. Remember that blamers often feel small and scared. Blaming is their way of coping with those feelings.

So, what happened at the kennel?

When I made my request to check availability the fourth time, the receptionist finally walked over to a wall calendar that showed all the kennel reservations for the week. There was space for Pudge. It took three minutes for the hand off. I expressed my gratitude that there was a place open and continued on my way.

You could look at this and say the receptionist is a little slow and doesn’t understand customer service. But I think there was something else at play. She didn’t want to be blamed. Fear of blame begets blaming, and blame always delays solving the problem.

This article originally appeared on

Facing Up to the Truth

(c) 2001-2010 Esther Derby

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, Scene 2

The other day I was skimming the Harvard Management Update when a section in bold red print caught my eye: “Why don’t more organizations stop and think? Because they don’t want to face the truth.” The article went on to say that the ability to “face the truth” is a critical business skill, and that failure to do so can have organizational and bottom-line consequences. Does this sound familiar? You and I see these consequences in software when projects spin out of control and shaky products are shipped “on time” in spite of poor quality.

What is “the truth”? Truth is a big word, so let’s settle for something more mundane: the current situation or the current state.

First let’s acknowledge that organizations can’t face truth; organizations are configurations of people and can’t really act as one human person would. But we, the people who make up organizations, can grapple with concepts like truth. So why don’t we? If it’s that important, we should all face up to the current situation, right? What makes it so hard for us?

Let’s look at two projects that didn’t go as hoped for, and how their sponsors faced the situation.

Martha was a new vice president in a software company that was growing by acquisition. Martha saw an opportunity to consolidate accounting and customer functions across acquired companies. She made the business case to her boss, Ben, chartered a project she named “One-Account,” and started the search for a project manager.

The hiring market was tight, and Martha couldn’t find anyone with the level of experience and skill she wanted for the salary she was able to offer. After interviewing a dozen candidates, she settled for a bright young man named Steve, even though he didn’t have much experience.

Pretty soon it became obvious that Steve didn’t have the skills to handle the large and complex project Martha had hired him for. Steve wasn’t able to manage scope or build even a basic plan.

“I can’t go upstairs and tell Ben this,” Martha thought. “If I tell him, he’ll think I’m a fake and a failure. I talked him into this, after all. We haven’t actually missed any dates,” she rationalized, “and we aren’t over budget, so we’re not really offtrack…”

When colleagues started suggesting that Martha needed to step in and put the project back on track, she countered by justifying her current situation. “I really did my best to find a more experienced project manger, but Steve was the fourth person I made an offer to, and by that point…what was I supposed to have done?”

The project continued to wallow as Steve frantically hired more contractors to work on the ever-increasing scope. Martha started moving resources from other projects and initiatives to cover the wildly inflating budget. “It’s all coming from my own budget, and I’ve got the One-Account project covered, so technically we’re not really over budget,” she told herself.

Martha’s boss, Ben, looked at his current situation, and realized he had a vice president who wasn’t able to face the situation and take action. Ben fired Martha.

Several times zones away, Jackson found himself in a similar spot. His organization was building a new Web application, the first for his company. He hired a project manager, Stacey, who had a good résumé and who seemed like a good fit for the organization. She was a nice person and did a good job building the initial plan.

Jackson felt things were going okay, so he turned his attention to a problem brewing with a subsidiary elsewhere.

When Jackson came back, he found that Stacey’s project team was still having planning meetings, but there were no results or tangible signs of progress. The delivery date had been moved out. When the team talked about delivery, they were pretty vague. “Sometime in maybe the fourth quarter,” he’d hear, “or maybe early next year.”

“This project isn’t going the way I want it to,” thought Jackson. “Stacey did well at the planning stage, but she isn’t able to define concrete deliverables so people can make progress. I sure like Stacey and I want her to be successful. I need to do something to put things back on track.” Jackson started by coaching Stacey, meeting with her three times a week and giving her more direction. Still, the project wasn’t turning around.

Jackson sat down and had a long talk with Stacey. It wasn’t an easy conversation for either of them. Jackson realized that he wouldn’t be doing Stacey any favors by keeping her on in a position that was turning out to be a poor fit. Stacey moved into a role where she was more comfortable, and Jackson took over management of the project.

On the face of it, both Martha and Jackson faced similar problems—an important project that wasn’t going as they wanted. And Martha and Jackson were each aware of the gap between the desired state and the current reality.

The difference was that Martha became wrapped up in her fears about what the situation might mean for her career, and her beliefs about failure. With all that emotion swirling around, there wasn’t much room left for her to think clearly about what to do. Jackson, on the other hand, looked at the facts as just that: facts—information about the difference between the current state and what he wanted. Does this mean we should suppress our emotions? No, as managers, we need to learn how to manage our own emotional state, so we can focus on solving the problem.

The current situation can seem “bad” when things are not going the way we hoped they would. But really, the situation justis. The ability to “face the truth” and take effective action rests on the ability to be in a mental state where our emotions and fears aren’t running us. And managers like Jackson have learned to face the current situation as neither good nor bad—it just is what it is. From that perspective, we can gauge where we are in relation to where we want to be, and take action to close the gap.

This column originally appeared in STQE magazine, December 2001.