Inside Job:
Why Dealing with “Difficult” Colleagues Will Lead to Happier Customers
Ron Kaufman

Too often, organizations promise satisfaction to external customers and then allow internal politics to frustrate their employees’ good intentions to deliver. It’s important to remember that your customers aren’t the only ones who come through your organization’s door every day seeking quality service. Your coworkers and leaders also need to be served. If they’re not happy, it’s not likely they’ll deliver stellar service, and the same goes for you. Inevitably, “difficult people” will creep into your work life, disturbing you, your colleagues’, and your leaders’ workflow and negatively affecting the service you all provide your customers. Once you’ve characterized someone as a “difficult person,” you’re already in a lose-lose situation. It’s like my view on difficult customers: There are no difficult customers; there are only difficult customer situations. Similarly, there are no difficult coworkers. There are only difficult coworker situations. And once you start to think differently about how to manage those difficult situations, everyone can be more satisfied and better served, including you, your colleagues, and most importantly, your customers.

What I’m talking about is an uplifting service culture change. In Uplifting Service, I write that service is taking action to create value for someone else, and that “someone else” can be outside or inside your organization.

my view on difficult customers: There are no difficult customers; there are only difficult customer situations

When the entire organization agrees to define the way they work together using this definition of service, everyone will be able to focus on creating value and serving each other better, which leads to better external service. Read on for my advice on how you can use difficult situations to start building an uplifting service culture in your organization…from the inside out.

Assess the Situation Carefully

Is your colleague deeply upset or simply having a bad day? Are they angry about an ongoing internal issue that must be addressed and solved, or a one-off situation like a presentation gone wrong? Is this a process problem that persistently provokes, or a one-time irritation that will naturally fade away? Once you have assessed the situation, you can then determine whether the person just requires a little personal attention from you—or whether a larger plan must be created.

Shift Your Perspective

Stop thinking of your colleague as “difficult” and start thinking about the difficulty he is experiencing, and how you can serve him in his current situation. What is it he is concerned, disturbed, or upset about that’s leading to his behavior?

Once you realize what a difficult situation means to another person, you can approach the issue with more compassion, generosity, empathy, and patience. This is far more effective for both parties than concluding that another person is difficult all the time or is always overreacting.

Lean in and Work on the Problem Together

A “difficult” person often behaves that way because he/she is trying to get something he/she needs, or is trying to make something happen. He/she probably thinks the only way they can get a colleagues’ attention is by outwardly showing their anger. But we know from experience that the way to get better service is to be a better customer. And the same goes for getting the help we all want from our colleagues.

Plan How You’ll Work Together

One way to defuse a difficult situation is to pull out a piece of paper and decide what actions each of you will take next. This helps remove emotional tension and gets everyone down to work. The sooner you say, “Let’s figure this thing out. What action can I take that will create value for you? Let’s agree on next steps. Let’s make some promises to each other,” the better.

Role Model the Right Behavior

One of the best ways to make this behavior a part of your company culture is to role model it yourself. And you can do this from any position in the organization: from the top, the middle, or the frontline. Eventually, your colleagues will see how you handle these situations and how your approach leads to positive action.

Think about it like this: The “difficult” coworkers you encounter on a given workday are simply people seeking service. Being able to recognize and reconcile those situations internally is just as important as being able to recognize when a customer interaction has gone south. With surprising service coming from the inside, it’s easier to step up your service on the outside. And when that happens, everyone at the organization wins.

Ron Kaufman is a popular keynote speaker and is the author of the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet (Evolve Publishing, 2012,