Steel Mountain Services

Dealing with “difficult people” – a case study

What do you do when a colleague or business contact suddenly turns nasty? When ongoing professional communication is necessary even though every interaction is peppered with unpleasantness?

The rude factory manager

This scenario was recently posed to us by a colleague of ours. His role involves quality control on behalf of his company at factories they outsource to. As part of his job, he needs to regularly interact with the factory managers and in this case the relationship with one of the factory managers took a turn for the worse.

Despite being initially friendly and professional in their communications, after several months the relationship with the factory manager suddenly changed. Where initial email responses were prompt, suddenly our colleague was waiting for days to receive a reply. Phone conversations that had previously been professional and friendly became peppered with snide comments:

– “You’re only a small part of this factory’s overall business, you know?”
“Our other clients don’t need this much testing and inspection from us.”

When every interaction feels like a major hassle it leaves a sour taste in your mouth after a while. So, what to do?

How to resolve unprofessional communication

Generally, there are two approaches:

The first is to address the unprofessionalism only. Whether by changing supplier, addressing the issue directly with the factory manager, or by appealing to higher management (who may then either reprimand the manager or replace them) this may garner initial results but in reality, only addresses the symptoms of a deeper issue.

To truly resolve the issue and prevent it from recurring, we have to look at what causes such a change in tone. What is going on?

The factory manager’s perspective

Let’s look at this a little deeper and imagine things from the factory manager’s perspective. Our colleague’s job is to inspect the goods and the manufacturing process at the factory to ensure that the product meets his client’s standards. This involves requesting time-consuming inspections, tests, and pointing out flaws and mistakes.

A certain degree of inspection is par for the course for our factory manager – it’s a normal part of the job. However, based on the comments made to our colleague, we can assume that the majority of the factory’s clients don’t require the degree of detail in their inspection that our colleague does. The increased workload to the factory manager from what is apparently only a small client likely creates resentment. Add to that the fact that the very nature of inspection involves finding flaws, which many people struggle not to take personally as it casts them and their work in a negative light, we have the perfect storm of feeling both resentful and personally attacked. Even the best, most professional people struggle not to let this show over time.

Possible solutions

Now that we understand the manager’s experience better, we open up the possibility of resolving the core issue at hand through the following options:

Is it possible for our colleague to reduce the manager’s workload? Either through more effective communication, delegation, or better systems?
Is it possible to better communicate the discovered issues? While we don’t subscribe to coddling people, communication is a learned skill and our colleague may have been accidentally implying personal fault when pointing out issues he finds. Communication issues are especially common when language and cultural barriers are at play, as they are in this case.

Even if neither of the above improvements are possible, often the very acknowledgement of the issue can go a long way towards resolving it and producing a cooperative environment. A simple “I get that this is a hassle for you, I’m sorry for the inconvenience” can go a long way to maintaining cordial and professional communications.

The resolution

Our colleague unfortunately only relayed this scenario to us after he had already resolved it. He appealed to his boss, who called the factory upper management, and within hours prompt communications between the factory manager and our colleague had resumed. We can only hope that things stay cordial between them, however should things deteriorate in future, he now has a different approach to try.

We are a firm believer in finding the root cause of an issue, whether it be interpersonal or systems related. It’s possible to apply “band aid” fixes which will usually get things moving forward just long enough to be forgotten, only to resurface again a few months later in a different form. True solutions usually take longer but fix not just the symptoms but also the root cause, ensuring it never returns, promoting easier workflow, and ultimately easy and sustainable growth.

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