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Your ability to contribute to a project team depends a lot on your ability to relate to people -- your team members, stakeholders, managers. While positive and supportive relationships can propel you to success, dysfunctional relationships can destroy you.
If you mismanage a dysfunctional relationship with a difficult person, the fallout will affect your productivity and, quite possibly, the fate of your project.
The first step is to identify whether you're in a toxic professional relationship. Here are some signs to look for in the other person; he/she:
Stifles your talent and limits your opportunities for advancement
Twists circumstances and conversations to their benefit
Punishes you for a mistake rather than help you correct it
Reminds you constantly or publicly of a disappointing experience or unmet expectation
Takes credit or withholds recognition for new ideas and extra effort
Focuses solely on meeting their goals and does so at your expense
Fails to respect your need for personal space and time
To successfully manage difficult people, you need to set boundaries that encourage mutual respect and keep the focus on productivity. Boundaries remind people of what's acceptable to you and what's reasonable to expect from you, and prevent difficult people from taking up too much of your time and energy. Failure to set these boundaries simply allows a toxic relationship to develop.
Establishing boundaries isn't easy, however. Difficult people don't like boundaries. They want to shift responsibilities according to their mood and create work environments that mirror their personal environments.
Here are some ways you can set boundaries:
Manage your time. Set a limit on the amount of time you spend beyond the hours needed to complete the project work. For example, you should politely but firmly decline an invitation to a peripheral meeting.
Express yourself. Reveal aspects of your personality that reinforce your values. Sometimes it's a matter of letting people in a little bit to help keep your boundaries intact. If aggressive behavior offends you, say so (in a firm, but non-aggressive way), but you also need to consistently act in an assertive (rather than aggressive) way.
Build your reputation, and do it carefully and consistently. Everyone plays a role at work. Your co-workers should know what you stand for and what to expect from you. Then, don't waiver. Authenticity is the key -- behave in the way you expect others to treat you.
Change the conversation. Stay focused on the project and away from nonproductive behavior. Avoid gossip, criticism and other negative conversations by simply stating: "I don't really have time to discuss that just now, but I really do need your input on this project issue." If the attack is on you personally, ask to "take the conversation off line and focus on this important project matter now."
Effective relationship management is not for the faint-hearted. But when you know how to handle difficult relationships appropriately, you'll be in a much stronger position to achieve your objectives and succeed.
How do you manage difficult people? What advice would you give for establishing boundaries?