This book should have actually been named ‘Dealing with Difficult People at Work’, because it discusses exactly that. The fact that it is published by Harvard Business Review as part of Emotional Intelligence series, means that the ‘at Work’ is redundant and I should have known better. It is a compilation of essays by different authors from different backgrounds like business consultants, professors, mediators, and psychiatrists. The essays are based on studies and researches conducted by the authors and others who are quoted and given credits.
What is covered?
The book talks about challenges we face at work while dealing with people; like Conflict Resolution, Stressful conversations, Mean colleagues, Passive-Aggressive behavior, Handling stressed-out and demanding colleagues, Managing bosses, etc. Well researched, practical, tried and tested tips on how to handle colleagues and bosses and how to fix the problem are discussed. Where the problems cannot be fixed, workarounds and other courses of actions are presented as well.
Keep in mind that it does not teach any super-secret or magic phrase or action that will work in all situations, and essentially focuses on behavioral changes and certain techniques to be adopted by the reader to get the work done. It is all about YOU and how you can change the outcome of a conversation or situation by how you react to it and how you deal with it. It emphasizes on the 90/10 principle, which was popularized by Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It states that: 10% of life is made up of what happens to you, and 90% of life is decided by how you react. We truly have no control over 10% of what happens to us.
A gist of different topics covered in the book:
- A good part of dealing with people involves handling emotions – yours and theirs.
- Stay calm in adverse situations to not make it worse.
- Know what to do, and also know what not to say or do.
- Avoid personal attacks and focus on the goal of the conversation.
- Fight tactics, not people.
- Communication carries words, not intent.
- Learn from your boss and colleagues.
- Seek help on time.
- Learn when to stick on and when to leave.
- Ascertain if you are the problem and if you are the person difficult to deal with, and your role in the problem or situation.
The idea of ‘Realistic optimism’ is discussed, which talks about viewing a situation from different lenses or perspectives. It also introduces you to the startling fact that highly-skilled and well-liked people are the usual targets of difficult people.
What is missing?
Though the book covers many important topics related to handling difficult people, I found certain topic that have been completely missed out or not covered enough.
- The tips presented in the book are generic and you are encouraged to change/adopt the conversations/techniques to suit your situation.
- The coverage is minuscule, each topic is covered from a high level perspective, and does not discuss much. Remember, this is a small book of 140 odd pages (Paperback).
- Cultural differences are not discussed. Though it is not mentioned explicitly, the book primarily addresses the Western audience. Therefore, many tips presented here may not work for a different culture and may actually be counter-productive in certain situations. For example:
- taking your boss to restaurant for lunch or dinner to talk and sort out the differences. This may not work in India and may actually be taken as inappropriate or even offensive, especially when the person and their boss are of opposite gender.
- making a credible threat of litigation against your company in a certain situation. In India, chances are that you will be tossed out of the company in a matter of few minutes.
Applications outside Work
The book specifically focuses on handling difficult people at work. However, some of the tips presented here can also be used to handle difficult people outside of work. For example, the tips on handling Passive-Aggressive colleague can also be used to handle a passive-aggressive spouse or a teen kid.
This is a short, practical and scholarly book on dealing difficult people at work and getting things done that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. But don’t have high expectations, the tips are generic and you still have to work you way hard to adopt these techniques to make them work for you.
This article is also available in Linked: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/book-review-dealing-difficult-people-shameel-ahmed