No one relishes the thought of meeting the client, colleague or manager whose mere mention is synonymous with stress. Yet, challenging people (and the situations they create) are a work life fact. Chances are high that you will encounter one of these individuals along the way. When you’ve landed in a tight spot with someone who just isn’t playing fair, it can feel like a tidal wave of emotions.
Unfortunately, the experience can leave us feeling off balance and not quite like ourselves. This can be overwhelming. Feeling undermined or attacked is traumatic — and emotions run high. (Completely normal.) Most of us will immediately formulate an internal counter-attack or argument. However the opportunity for this play out in real life, is often dependent on the existing power dynamic. In many cases, we simply have to process the situation to move through it.
If you are not in the position to openly respond — or directly defend yourself — you can be left with disturbing after-effects. We might feel a little “hung-over”, exhausted or dazed. Ultimately, encountering toxic people can affect our ability to thrive in the workplace. This is a real and present danger. So we must address the situation quickly.
Here is a bit of advice to wade through the fall-out:
- Psychologically separate. The first thing to protect is your work life well-being. This may require applying mindfulness techniques to observe the situation from a safer psychological distance. Most human beings have a powerful response to extreme negative feedback — so ensure that your emotions (and feelings of worth) are not hijacked or destroyed. Think of things this way: What if the situation happened to a friend or co-worker? What advice would you offer them?
- Seek support. Touch base with a trusted colleague or supervisor to share your experience and gain some perspective. Knowing that you have support, will help your resolve and deter doubts from taking a foothold.
- Learn from the experience. A post-mortem review might be challenging — especially when you feel you are not at fault. However, reviewing the entire story to identify where things may have gone off the rails (and to revise future strategy) is warranted. Subtle cues can provoke someone who is already difficult to work with. Protect yourself going forward.
- Face reality & exit the battlefield. If you feel your reputation may be at stake, attempt to exit the dynamic entirely. Request another colleague to cover the client or complete unfinished project work. Sometimes, more exposure only breeds more trouble.
- Give things time. The surprise of the initial shock will fade. However, how you process the experience will matter longer-term. You will change as a contributor — but hopefully you will also emerge wiser, stronger and better prepared.
- Focus on resilience-building. Learning strategies that help us bounce back are critical. Protecting our psychological resources is important, as situations where we feel misunderstood or attacked can have long-standing effects.
How have you dealt with unreasonable individuals in your work life? Share your strategies here.
Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial & Organizational Psychologist, diagnostician and coach. A charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program, her posts on workplace topics have appeared at the Harvard Business review, The Huffington Post, US News & World Report and The World Economic Forum