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How to. . .Manage difficult people

Most of us, at some point in our careers, will work with a colleague who is difficult to manage. Yet few of us possess the skills necessary to deal effectively with such a person, says Keith Milmer of Ashridge Managment College.

While building good relationships is essential for successful business, many organisations - particularly in sectors like engineering, IT and finance - tend to place more emphasis on technical skills training. Yet organisations which fail to acknowledge the importance of interpersonal skills run the risk of creating a culture of low morale, high staff turnover and decreased productivity.

There are many situations in which someone can find developing and maintaining relationships difficult. For example, when a young manager is promoted out of his or her peer group or put in charge of much older colleagues, or when an employee has a difficult relationship with a boss or another senior colleague. Problems between peers are also common, especially when projects compete internally for limited resources.

There is an increasing emphasis in management on collaboration and cross functional working, in which staff expect to be consulted and have an input on decisions. Failing to recognise this can cause problems. So management styles are now more collaborative and less autocratic.

Flexibility and sensitivity are also vital. People who are difficult to manage often lack selfawareness and a perception of other people's needs and personality differences. Managers of such individuals should adjust their style accordingly, rather than taking a one size fits all approach.

But despite your best efforts, there will always be some people with whom it is virtually impossible to establish an effective working relationship.

Liking or disliking particular individuals does not come into it.

If you are a line manager, you should initiate a clearly defined performance improvement programme, benchmarked against the performance of other staff in similar roles. If this process fails, you may need to consider how appropriate the person is in his or her position.

You have to take a long term view and difficult, unproductive situations take time to turn around. It may be necessary to explore issues outside work that will require sensitive counselling skills.

While pay is important, people go to work for many other reasons, including a desire to contribute their skills and talents, 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.

All staff members are a valuable resource, offering a unique mix of knowledge, skills and abilities. If one particular staff member is the source of frustration or conflict for many, it is important that the situation is not ignored. Professional HR 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.

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