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QUESTION TIME WITH MENTOR JOHN

Office politics: Taking the bull by the horns

John Bittleston shares his advice on how to work well with difficult people in the workplace

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Reaching out to a difficult colleague or manager is the best way to put forward your thoughts and attempt to find a resolution before the situation spirals out of control.

GETTING along with others is essential. In world politics, it's the difference between war and peace. In the workplace, it can be the difference between getting fired or a promotion. However, difficult colleagues or a demanding boss make working well with others a challenge.

Q: My boss is a pain. How should I handle him/her?

A: First, think about your boss, not yourself. You may be getting a rough time from him, but stating your case will only make things worse. He is wrapped up in himself and his own concerns. We can all be selfish, at one time or another. Selfishness is necessary for survival but unselfishness is essential for a working society. Your unselfishness now may save both him and you.

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Tell him you would like advice on a personal matter. Ask if you can have a quiet chat - preferably over coffee away from the office or, failing that, at a time when things are quiet. During your chat, tell him that you need advice because you think you should not be as unhappy as you are. Ask him if he has ever had a similar experience, and if so what he did to get himself out of it.

Be straightforward but gentle, even if he is rough. Tell him you know he has a lot of responsibilities and is very hardworking. Ask him if he will help you to work the unhappiness out of your system.

If you do this nicely, thinking about him and his worries more than you and your worries, you will be surprised at how he will try to help.

Q: My team are ganging up on me and I am lost. What should I do?

A: Whether you are the team leader or team member, look for reasons why they are doing this. Has anything you have done - or are doing all the time - given them good reason to gang up on you? Be honest, we often bring trouble on ourselves unwittingly. Can you change your behaviour?

Can you spot the ringleader who is creating this trouble? There will certainly be one who drives the team's bad behaviour. Take your time to identify this person - they are the key to your solving your problem.

Recognise that people who do this are themselves unhappy. This makes them vindictive. Like before, ask for a quiet time with this ringleader away from the office. Ask him how you can contribute better to the team so that you can become more integrated. Get to know the ringleader better. Ask his opinion on how the business is run or whether things are looking up or down.

Be careful not to slander anyone or it could come back to bite you. Become friends with the ringleader and he is more likely to cooperate with you and endorse you.

Q: I can't get my team to do what I ask. How can I be more effective with them?

A: Those in a leadership position often find those working for them becoming difficult and rebellious. After all, we usually don't like the boss, so don't be too sensitive about yourself.

Instead, try to be very sensitive to these difficult people. Do you have enough authority to handle your subordinates, such as the ability to fire them? If not, you may need to speak to senior management.

Establishing your position as strongly as you can is essential when dealing with difficult subordinates. Once this is done, seek out the person who is making the waves most strongly.

Like before, there will always be a ringleader, who is key to your problem. Do whatever you can to get the ringleader on your side by asking them for help. People often find it difficult to resist giving help. However, if this is absolutely impossible - and there are always some people who are pathologically difficult - then get rid of them. Every leader from time to time has to show who is boss.

Q: I don't like confrontation and avoid it. This has slowed down my progress at work. What can I do?

A: Most people dislike confrontation. Unfortunately, sometimes we have to be confrontational. Fortunately, we do not have to do so by behaving aggressively. Done correctly, our confrontation can appear to be cooperation.

Many people think confrontation involves saying things that are provocative, controversial or hurtful. In tricky situations, speaking the truth - in a calm and kindly manner - is never wrong. Before you approach the other party, first ask yourself what outcome you want. Ideally, this should be to improve the behaviour of the person you are finding difficult. This can never be done by either being aggressive or avoiding the issue.

Think of the questions you can ask the person about what they want out of the situation. Find out what they take pride in and what makes them happy at work. Resolve to tell the truth in such a way that will not cause anger or hurt but will encourage the person you have to confront to do better. Above all, remember that this is all about them, not about you. You are fine.

  • Do you have questions for Mentor John on how to improve your business? Please send them to btletters@sph.com.sg
  • John Bittleston is founder mentor and executive chairman of Terrific Mentors International.
  • For more tips on how to get along better with others, go to businesstimes.com.sg for John Bittleston's webinar.