4 Steps to Prepare for and Deal with Monsters in the Workplace

clip_image002.jpgEach of us has encountered at least one “monster” in the workplace. Monsters can include an insulting co-worker, an insensitive manager who embarrasses you in front of your peers, a bully who gets physical with you, or a tyrannical director who doesn’t have a clue about what your role is in the organization. Dealing effectively with difficult people depends on how prepared you are to handle unpleasant situations. Learn to recognize and deal with your “monsters.” Responding effectively to conflict can bring peace and promote better relationships.

1. Recognizing the Warning Signs – First let’s recognize the warning signs of a “monster” that can include their taking a threatening posture (in-your-face), getting red in the face, lowering their voice, talking through clenched teeth, taking a condescending tone, balling up their fists, or slamming doors or drawers.

2. Identifying the Source – After being the recipient of this display or seeing it from afar, ask yourself: Is the person being aggressive because they’re hurt, ashamed, frustrated, embarrassment, fearful, or do they have a mental disorder?

My Monster: I’m only half-kidding when I mention mental disorder as a possible source because I’ve witnessed this firsthand. During a scheduled software and associated documentation review (application with imbedded help screens), I pointed out an inaccuracy in one block of information. After the meeting, the woman who wrote the clip_image004_thumb.jpgcontent followed me out of the meeting, waited until we were alone, got right in my face, wagged a finger in front of my nose, and yelled: “Don’t ever correct me in front of others. YOU’LL GET YOUR CHANCE!” I was taken aback because the entire point of the meeting was to make the final product better for our customers. Surprisingly, I stayed totally calm and said with a quizzical look on my face, “I need to go to the ladies room.” And then I walked away. Shortly afterward, I reported the incident to my manager who informed me that similar instances had occurred with others. The next work day, the hyper-sensitive woman was escorted out of the building by security. She was fired for throwing pencils and her cell phone at people in meetings when they disagreed with her, screaming at co-workers who entered her cube, and for not allowing anyone to talk with her anywhere but in meetings. Later that day, management suggested that we move our cars to another part of the parking lot to avoid having our tires slashed because they anticipated some sort of violent response from her! Can you imagine!? (By the way: I moved my car. She was scary!)

3. Deciding How to React – After identifying the source of the monster’s behavior, be sure to document the facts and provide the details to management or a human resources professional. Then, you’ll need toclip_image006.jpg make one of these decisions: avoid the situation, give in to the situation, allow yourself to be bullied, reach a compromise, honor the person’s reason for being angry, act passive-aggressively, solve the problem together, or have the offending person terminated. Remember: If you anticipate that the terminated person will act volatilely, ensure that you have proper security in place. For example, reinforce access procedures (e.g., proper badging in and out) and alert your security staff, providing a photo of the offending person.

4. Mediating Resolution – So, let’s say you’ve observed co-workers go at each other with yelling and finger pointing, and you decide to solve the problem through mediation. After the ruffled feathers have settled and tempers clip_image007.jpghave calmed down, set up an organized and timed forum to discuss the problem. Dispassionately and clearly identify the problem and present possible options to resolve the problem. Although you may get push-back from one or more negative participants, project confidence in the group’s ability to reach a resolution. Record and share the group’s decisions, including promises and what the repercussions are for not delivering on those promises. Follow through with the decisions. On a positive note: Imagine if identifying and solving the problem results in a process improvement for your company!

Defusing the Situation – Here’s a technique you can use in and out of the office. My husband frequently and clip_image009.jpgsuccessfully uses Michael Staver’s anger defusing technique known as “Vent If You’re Bent….” Try it; you’ll like it!

  • Offer to listen to a 2-minute rant.
  • If needed, offer another minute.
  • Don’t interrupt the person.
  • Don’t tell them to calm down.
  • Be empathetic…”You might be right.”
  • Paraphrase what they’re saying back to them so they know that you are listening.
  • Don’t take responsibility for something that isn’t yours.

Learning More – Here are a few suggestions for learning more about coping with conflict:

  • Mastering Your Message – Conflict Resolution by Dr. Tony Alessandra
  • Lifescripts: What to Say to Get What You Want in Life’s Toughest Situations by Stephen M. Pollan and Mark Levine
  • 21 Ways to Defuse Anger and Calm People Down by Michael Staver
  • A Coward’s Guide to Conflict by Tim Ursiny, Ph.D.
  • Problem Solving and Decision Making – Handling Conflict and Dealing with Change by Thomas J. Winninger, CPAE


clip_image011_thumb.jpgMary Van Brink – I’m a technical writer, editor, trainer, QA analyst, and archivist. I began my career with Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in 1984 and have had consulting contracts with Fortune 500 companies including IBM and First Union (now Wachovia/Wells Fargo) and several smaller companies, such as Crawford & Company, Marcam (an IBM offshoot), the C.D. Group, Solvay Pharmaceuticals (now Abbott Products, Inc.), and Immucor. During my 32-year career, my experiences have meandered through industries including banking, telecommunications, risk management, training, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and transportation. I’ve worked through SystemwarePS as a contract Technical Writer and Quality Assurance Analyst for Norfolk Southern on the Positive Train Control (PTC) project (https://www.aar.org/Pages/PTC—Meeting-the-Challenge-and-Getting-It-Right.aspx) since August of 2012. It’s my goal to make authors look good.