Working with Difficult Colleagues How to use a 360 to deal with a difficult colleague (with examples)

Dealing with difficult people in the workplace is hard. Here's how to use 360-degree feedback to make it easier.

Dealing with difficult people in the workplace is hard. And what if the difficult person is your manager or the boss? Here's how you can use a 360-degree review to help make them easier to work with.
Photo by Yan Krukov on Pexels
We’ve all experienced it. Colleagues who don't work well with others, who are resistant to change, who shout at people, are critical and always negative, or who don’t do the work you’re expecting them to do, never take ownership, or even some who are casually sexist or racist.

Sometimes it is a member of your own team who is difficult and hard to work with, disrupting team cohesion, derailing projects, and destroying trust.

Maybe they behave in ways that upset other people, or maybe they cut people off in meetings, saying for example, “No, tried that, doesn't work,” or, “crap idea,” or something equally unhelpful. Behaving in a way which feels quite belittling for others, and shutting them down.

Few people like conflict and often these kinds of aggressive behaviours go unaddressed. Everyone just walks away and licks their wounds. People might talk about the problem in small groups, perhaps they'll talk to their manager, but no one has the courage to address it with the individual concerned in case they get their head bitten off.

Problem staff are the dread of every manager.  Research by the Center for Creative Leadership in the USA shows that problem employees can cost an organisation up to $8,000 a day by eroding trust, reducing output and innovation, and lowering the motivation and cohesion of their work group.

Surprisingly this happens quite often in organisations. Research shows that 60-80% of all difficulties in organisations come from strained relationships between employees, not from failings in an individual’s skill or motivation.

But what if it’s your boss or a senior team member who’s the problem?

Here are some examples:
  • Your boss is spiky and a tyrant
  • A senior colleague always cuts you off
  • Your manager is often like a bear with a sore head
  • A director shouts at you and humiliates you in front of everyone
This is hard to resolve, especially if you’re a junior member of staff, as power dynamics are not easy to overcome. Left unaddressed these behaviours affect a team’s performance and can make the workplace feel unsafe and an unpleasant place to be.

Guide to using a 360 to deal with a difficult boss 

These issues are best addressed by having a difficult conversation with the person concerned, but in case that's not possible or if you're scared to do that, here’s how to deal with a difficult colleague, with examples, including how and why a 360 creates a safer space to give constructive feedback that can help you, your colleague and your team develop and grow together instead.

Here are a couple of scenarios that might feel familiar…

1. Your boss is a tyrant, they can be really spiky and unpredictable.

Your boss behaves like a tyrant. Sometimes they're a benevolent tyrant, ie you fundamentally like them, but every now and again they behave in volatile, unpredictable ways. Not physically violent, but verbally violent. 

You may have seen or heard of cases of this, for example where a director comes into an open plan office and in front of everyone shouts something like: “I've just come out of a meeting, and I have never been so humiliated! How could you give me a bunch of figures like that?! They were out of date! I was unable to answer the questions. What you did was not good enough!” 

The recipient of the tirade is likely to be thinking and feeling things such as, “This is so unfair! How could I have predicted that? This report is what we always do. You didn't give me time to have a conversation. You didn't ask me for that… I've just been broadsided out of nowhere, and everybody saw me get humiliated. That was a horrible experience.”

Get shouted at like that more than once or twice, and actually that is bullying behaviour.

And it doesn’t just affect the person who was on the receiving end. Everybody else who heard it is thinking, “Gulp. That could be me. I need to watch my back,” which leads to all kinds of back-covering behaviours, including:
  • the rise of multiple CCs on emails.
  • people not willing to take responsibility because they don't want to take the flack.
  • asking the 'tyrant' to check everything, leading to bottlenecks.
  • the curse of paranoid perfectionism - where epic effort goes into producing the perfect document or report without getting feedback on it early enough, for fear of being branded unprofessional, so the output ends up being 'wrong' anyway.
The question is: how do you address this stuff?

Firstly, understand why your boss may be behaving like that. 

Most people know how to behave in organisations, and have good manners. Aggressive people in the workplace usually have something else going on. They may be feeling vulnerable, afraid they might be judged or come under attack, or lose their job in some way. They definitely don't feel safe. 

This is not to excuse their behaviour, but it's always more complicated and messy than it first seems.

2: Your senior colleague behaves like a bear with a sore head

Perhaps your aggressive colleague's difficult behaviour has a different source. 

One of the managers we work with was deeply bruised after being seconded out to a project that went horribly wrong. They were left on their own without any support and felt very exposed. It was incredibly stressful for them. When they came back, their distress was not addressed or dealt with. They were burned out by the other project. And yet here they were back in the office and the previous situation didn’t seem to matter to anyone. 

They started acting out: cutting people off in meetings, and putting people down. They behaved badly and treated peers and colleagues poorly.

No one felt able to say anything.

Their manager came to us and said, “I've worked with this person for many years. They’re my friend. I've tried to talk to them about how they’re behaving. They're not willing to listen to me, they lash out at me for bringing it up. If I keep pushing it, I’m going to lose the friendship. Nobody else feels able to speak to them about it.”

How to use a 360 in these situations

Where people feel unable to address these kinds of behaviours head on, usually because of a fear of conflict, you can use a 360-degree review to create a neutral space where peers, mangers and reports are able to give feedback on the individuals concerned, anonymously, safely and in a really balanced way. 

As a safe way to approach this, in both the above real-life situations we ran a 360 with the difficult people and went through their 360 feedback report with them in coaching conversations. 

Helping the angry manager work out what is really going on

In their 360 feedback, this manager’s colleagues articulated how they were frustrated by the way the manager was behaving. However the feedback was also very, very balanced. They said this person is the most experienced member of the team, they are an invaluable source of advice, they are incredibly generous with their help and kind with their input. 

“But they can be really difficult to be around and can shut you down in meetings and can make you feel one millimetre high. One minute they lift you up and the next minute crush you down. It's really, really hard to work with them.”

“There's two versions of this person: there's the one we want. And the one that we're really scared of.”

In the ensuing coaching conversation, the manager concerned had a moment of clarity that led to an epiphany: all her problematic behaviour was a result of what happened when she was away doing the other project. She was exhausted and fed up. She said, “Everything here reminds me of the difficulties I had in the other project. That's what I'm bringing into the group and not acknowledging.”

She said “This can't go on. I can't continue to be stuck in this rut and take it out on my colleagues who I really like, and who I'm now harming. I need to do something about this for them and for my own well being.”

She decided she needed a complete change, to leave and start over, freeing herself and her team to move forward.
[editor’s note: It was certainly not our intention for her to think about moving on…]

Soothing a benevolent tyrant

In the other example, we worked with a leader who could be tyrannical. They were in fact a deeply caring person, yet from time to time they would lose it in ways that were unhelpful. 

This would happen when they felt at risk and exposed, and they would start shouting at people in public. 

They knew they were doing it but didn't stop, “I get frustrated because team members are not stepping up to the mark,“ they said.

They would always apologise afterwards, but the damage was done: people felt less confident and less able to step up in case they got shouted at.

The whole team agreed to run a 360-degree review, in part motivated by wanting to find a way to address this, because although everyone recognised it was holding them all back, they were afraid to talk about it directly. 

The leader was worried about what might come up in their own 360. “I shouldn't have done these things,” they said, “but I'm really worried that everything's going to be about me. And nobody's going to take responsibility for not stepping up. I know that I'm not helping by doing those things, maybe this is an opportunity to address it.”

The 360 review created a space where everyone in the team received a mixed bag of feedback, and different perspectives. People were able to be frank because it was a neutral space, and they could articulate what they were experiencing. 

For the leader with the problematic behaviours, it was an uncomfortable and tearful experience. To have more than one person say, “that thing you do, it isn't okay. And I really wish that would go away because all this other stuff you do is amazing. And that's the boss I love and want more from.”

When they read this, the first thing that the leader told their coach was, “I’m going round in loops, alternating between hating myself and then hating everybody else, and being really angry about how unfair it is.”

Once they calmed down and could accept the positive as well as the hard-to-hear feedback, they were able to work on changing:
1. They became more aware of their behaviour and its impact.
2. They shouted less but occasionally relapsed, it got better over time.
3. They worked out what triggered this behaviour and tried to be clearer in setting expectations.
4. They discovered that working from home really helped and they boiled over less readily: shouting at a screen just didn't seem to happen in the same way. 

Why 360’s are good, how they help

Putting a whole team through a 360 review will by no means completely solve a team's problems or fix a problem colleague, but it certainly equips people to be better able to deal with the issues they're facing, by giving the individuals in the group a clearer understanding of what's going on, and giving them increased confidence in being able to talk more honestly with colleagues.

Once you start talking and giving feedback, it becomes easier to give each other feedback more often, which enables a group to develop together and ultimately become a higher performing team.

A 360 degree feedback review can be a useful part of a feedback culture. If you’re looking for good 360 review software that supports the growth of your employees and your organisation, and removes the complicated admin that can accompany 360’s, use a tool like AdviceSheet, it is really that simple. 

AdviceSheet has:
  • Transparent pricing
  • Automates the process
  • Anonymous participants
  • Confidential reports
  • Free from meaningless metrics
  • Questions that stimulate insightful answers