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Your technical knowledge may be second to none, but do you know how to deal with the colleague who makes you grind your teeth or dread going to work?

Difficult people cost British industry thousands, if not millions of pounds a year in the lost productivity their behaviour causes.

Most people will work with a colleague who is diffi cult to manage at some point in their careers, but few possess the skills necessary to deal effectively with such a person.

'While building good relationships is a prerequisite for successful business, many organisations - particularly in sectors such as engineering, IT and fi nance - tend to place more emphasis on technical skills training, ' says Keith Milmer of European business school Ashridge, near Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.

'Yet interpersonal skills are essential and organisations failing to acknowledge this risk a culture of low morale, high staff turnover and decreased productivity, ' says Milmer, who is director of the Ashridge Leadership Process programme.

'There are many situations when developing and maintaining relationships can be diffi cult, for example, when a young manager is promoted to lead his or her own peer group or put in charge of much older colleagues, or when an employee has a diffi cult relationship with a boss or another senior colleague.' 'Peer-to-peer' difficulties are also common, he adds, especially when projects compete internally for limited and overlapping resources.

'There is an increasing emphasis in management on participative collaboration and cross-functional team working at all levels, with staff expecting to be consulted more and to have an input on decisions, ' he explains.

'People who take an individualistic approach may do well in their early career but are likely to run into problems later on if they fail to adapt to this new management style.' Milmer believes people who are diffi cult to manage may lack selfawareness or fail to take account of other people's needs or personality differences. He suggests their managers might consider introducing 360¦ feedback processes as a basis for targeted coaching.

'While remuneration is important, people go to work for many other reasons, including a desire to contribute their skills and talents meaningfully, and to feel part of a team. If a difficult relationship undermines these reasons, staff will stop enjoying work and the organisation will lose key talent, ' Milmer warns.

'If one staff member is the source of frustration or conflict for many, it is important the situation is not ignored. Human resources staff have an important role to play in such situations, but line managers must recognise their key responsibilities on behalf of their team.

'In the long term the unacceptable behaviour of one individual cannot be tolerated - the cost of high staff turnover and low morale is too great. And despite best efforts, there will always be the odd individual with whom a 'friendly' working relationship seems impossible.' Milmer advises managers to focus on work issues, not personalities.

'If you are a line manager, and one of your direct reports is failing to deliver acceptable work standards, you should initiate a clearly defined performance improvement programme, benchmarked against the performance of other staff in similar roles, ' he says.

'It is crucially important to agree 'Smart' (specifi c, measurable, achievable, relevant and timeframed) objectives. If this fails, you may need to consider how appropriate the person is in his or her position.

'But be prepared to take a longterm view; difficult, unproductive situations take time to turn around.

It may be necessary to explore issues outside work that will require sensitive counselling skills.'

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