Talking Shop: Dealing with irritating people on your IT team

Figure out how to deal with personality conflicts

Adjusting to new management responsibilities is difficult enough without having to work with jerks who seem to want to make your life miserable—but that's a challenge you will probably have to face. Dealing with irritating people is built into the management experience.

It's generally not possible to demote, intimidate, or harass irritating people into changing their ways or just going away. In fact, if you try to do this to people you don't like, your supervisor will probably consider you to be an irritating person. Consequently, you must learn to acknowledge the people in the workplace who push your buttons, and you'll need to develop intervention strategies that will reduce the impact of those people. This article won't address specific techniques for dealing with people who exhibit certain negative behaviors. Instead, it will address, in general, how you can learn to deal effectively with irritating people.

Strategies and suggestions
The first step in dealing with an issue is to acknowledge that is exists, so it's important to admit to yourself that a person or persons annoy you. Beyond that, these guidelines may help you find workable solutions:
  • Don't react to an irritating person until you have a good understanding of why that person is annoying you. Examine how you feel when the person is around. Are you annoyed at how the person talks to you or others? Are you perturbed by the quality of the person's work? Get a handle on what bothers you before attempting any sort of "fix" for the situation.
  • Make sure that your dislike of someone is not based on inappropriate reasons, such as color of skin, nationality, accent, or age. There is nothing wrong with reflecting on these issues as you examine your feelings about someone in the workplace. It is important to be sensitive to these issues as you develop interventions to deal with the irritating person.
  • Tailor your intervention according to the situation. Negative feelings about your boss, peers, or staff personnel rarely go away without some sort of intervention. However, skilled managers will analyze work conditions that have an influence on how the subject of the intervention will respond. For example, if you are generally viewed as being a seasoned and top performer in the organization, you might be able to address irritating people more directly. However, if you are new to the organization, a more subtle approach may be warranted. You also need to look at where the irritating person falls in the pecking order of the organization. If the person is considered to be a top performer or is the owner's son or daughter, you will want to plan your interventions accordingly. It is also important to consider what relationship the irritating person has with you. If the person is a member of your team, you will probably have more formal power to address the person's annoying behavior. If you are dealing with a peer or a boss, you will probably need to address the difficulties more subtly.
  • Focus on behaviors and not on personalities or attitudes. Behaviors are much easier to clearly define, making interventions easier to defend. Poor attitudes usually manifest themselves in poor behaviors of some kind. It is useful to document the effect of problematic behaviors on the overall team, customers, or users, or on your ability to manage the team.
  • Don't analyze the issues you have about an irritating person to the point of freezing your own ability to intervene. If someone is affecting you in a way that prevents you from doing your job or being reasonably pleased with your work, you need to address it in some way. Sometimes, holding off on doing anything concrete is an intervention as long as it is part of your strategy and not related to avoidance. For example, someone who is rude and arrogant may, given enough time, act that way with the wrong person (company president or other senior manager), and your problem will be taken care of for you.

One scenario
Jim is a new IT manager who has taken over responsibility for a LAN with 50 users. He has worked with LANs for about 10 years, but this is his first experience as a manager. One team member, John, did not respond well to Jim's instructions or feedback. John would often scowl when Jim addressed him and would occasionally ignore him or not follow through on responsibilities. Jim had to restrain himself from confronting John and letting him know what he thought of his behavior. He was reluctant to do so because he was the new person on the team and was not sure what would happen.

Jim approached a senior manager whom he trusted and asked for advice. The senior manager informed Jim that John had applied for the management position Jim had been offered and had been very disappointed when he wasn't chosen. He also indicated that John had good skills and was respected by the team. The senior manager suggested that Jim find ways to engage John by asking for his feedback on team and LAN issues.

Jim thought about this suggestion and mapped out his strategy. He approached John and mentioned that he had gotten good feedback from other people in the organization about his LAN skills and knowledge. Jim spoke about some of the things he wanted to accomplish with the team and asked for John's input. John was reluctant at first but did eventually respond to Jim's invitation to discuss issues related to the team.

The conversation seemed to relax the tension between Jim and John and served as a foundation for building a solid work relationship between them. The moral of this story is that Jim developed a successful intervention to work with an irritating team member by controlling his own urge to confront him, by finding out what he could about what might be motivating the negative behavior, and by developing a strategy for reducing its impact.

Final thoughts
Dealing with irritating people in the workplace is a significant challenge for a new IT manager. It is important to remember that developing strategies for dealing with irritating people is an important part of management in general. Very few people have enough control over their work environments to dispose of contrary people, so the next best thing to do is to control the impact they have on you and your ability to manage successfully.

Effective managers examine their own motivations for feeling annoyed at people in the workplace, learn as much as they can about the offending people and why they are acting the way they are, and develop strategies that will, ideally, redirect or minimize the irritating behaviors being exhibited.

For more information about how to deal with irritating people in the workplace, check out The Agile Manager's Guide to Managing Irritating People by Joseph T. Straub (1999) and Jerks at Work: How to Deal with People Problems and Problem People by Ken Lloyd (1999).

New manager questions
Steven Watson has 10 years of IT management and consulting experience and has developed an understanding of how the issues faced by IT managers differ from those of their nontechnical colleagues. As a new tech manager, do you have a question you'd like him to address? Send it to us via e-mail or post it in the discussion below.


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