How to make the most of difficult people at work

Let’s be honest. Life in academia can be tough.

I am not talking about the long hours, the uncertainty, experiments that do not work. I am not talking about the frustration of lab equipment that does not want to cooperate, or the way too common rejections. All these challenges and difficulties are part of the science game, and, in my humble opinion, fall within the things that come with the job. These aspects motivate me to stay in academia and to push just a little harder. All these challenges are what makes science what it is and worth it.

Instead, I am talking about having to deal with difficult people. This is what makes academia tough to me, and what drives many people to leave academia for good.

We have all met at least one difficult person in our work environment. And of course, difficult people are not an exception of academia, any work environment has its own difficult people, but here I will focus on the work environment I know the best.

When you choose to pursue an academic career, you also accept the fact that your job will absorb a big chunk of your time, and naturally, your colleagues will end up being more than just co-workers. They will become collaborators, your support system, your mentors and referees, your travel-buddies during conferences, the first people you share the joy of a publication or the disappointment of a rejection. We all care so much about what we do, and what we do is what unites us, ultimately. I feel very lucky that most of my past and present colleagues became family to me. I have very clear memories of the scientific moments and constructive conversations we shared, but I have even more vivid memories of how they made me feel during some very sad and very happy moments. However, I did not have the same sparkle with everyone, and I have completely lost touch with other colleagues, and that is okay and natural. We get on better with some people, and we do not get on well with others. However, the work environment calls for professional relationships between people, regardless of personal likes and dislikes.

So, what do I mean when I talk about ‘difficult people’ in the work environment?

Let me give you some examples. We all know that person who does not even say hi to you in the morning when you arrive at work. The person who avoids you as if you did not shower in a week. The person who stops talking as soon as you enter in a room. The person who disregards every idea you have and spreads fake rumors about you. The person who does not share useful information with colleagues and enjoys seeing others struggling while they are looking for it. I could go on and on, but these are just a few examples that come to my mind based on my own and others’ experience.

Sadly (or luckily?) we cannot control how other people behave with us or around us, but we can do a lot of work on how we behave in response to that. I decided to look at these situations with my big gratitude-glasses on, and to think that no matter how hard the situation is, there is something to learn for me. So, I decided to be thankful for the difficult people I encounter in my work life and to actually make the most of them. How do I do that?

Difficult people make us feel uncomfortable because they are out of our comfort zone. However, we know that this is where our personal grow takes place. They make us believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, that we should change or leave. Thus, anytime I have to deal with a difficult person, I have promised myself to switch from a ‘Why I have to deal with them?’ attitude to a “How can this person make me grow? What can I learn from this?’ approach.

We are made to believe that we can learn to know ourselves through the love of others; however, I would say that we can learn a lot about ourselves through the dislike of others. This type of people challenges us to develop new communication skills (yes, even silence when necessary), and to reinforce our tolerance. Moreover, they are a huge, flashing light pointing towards the kind of people we do not want to be, no matter what. This is the most precious thing I have learnt from dealing with difficult people: Despite the circumstances, the stress, the challenges of our job, I do not want to behave the same way they have behaved towards others and me. 

The amount of peace and freedom you get by trying this approach will be priceless. At the end of the day, if someone has problems with you, most of the time they have a problem, and the problem is not you. The entire dynamic speaks more about them than about you. So, go and try the gratitude-glasses on. You should never lose focus on who you want to be, and never let difficult people drag you down, because this is what they want, ultimately. As Michelle Obama said, ‘when they go low, we go high’.

Disclaimer: This post does not intend to reinforce the idea that abusive behaviour should be tolerated. The question is where we draw the line. Some of the behaviours that difficult people have in a workplace can be violations of the code of conduct that every student and employee signed when started working at universities, including KI. However, a thorough discussion around this issue is beyond the scope of this blog post. If you are experiencing behaviours that can be labelled as bullying, harassment or mobbing, you should talk to your head of department. Karolinska Institutet also offers an anonymous reporting system and around the clock telephone counselling to all employees, scholarship-funded doctoral and post-doctoral students. You can also visit this page for more information about hotlines and support. Please do reach out.

Written by anonymous guest blogger at KI.

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