Building a Service Culture Requires Dealing with 'Difficult' Employees

Don Tennant

If you’re managing an IT operation, you and the people who work for you are obviously providing a service to the rest of the organization. That means it’s your job to foster a culture of service in the IT ranks. To be successful at that, one expert in the service culture field says, you need to ensure that the people who work for you — including the difficult ones — feel that they’re being well served so that they’re predisposed to in turn serve others.

That expert is Ron Kaufman, a columnist, consultant and author of the book, “Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet.” In a post last month, “Want Better Service from Your Vendor? Be a Better Customer,” I shared Kaufman’s advice on how to deal effectively with service providers. Here, I want to highlight his tips on how to deal with difficult employees so that they can contribute to, rather than detract from, your uplifting service culture:


  • 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, 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. 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 to 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. 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. 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. 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.

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