Why do people voluntarily leave a “good job?” How could someone let go of a seemingly promising career path? From the outside, these questions puzzle onlookers. But from the inside, it can be a different picture altogether.
In my 25-plus years experience in career coaching, outplacement and advising top talent in transition, the old adage holds: People don’t leave their jobs, they leave their bosses. The most profound reason I see people leave seemingly good jobs is that they don’t know how to cope with difficult people.
Difficult and often high-conflict people who gain leadership and status in an organization may seem to be top performers, but they can be corrosive to others. An employee may feel like they have tried, but they don’t think they can continue in their present role. They get fed up.
Sometimes, the pattern can be self-blame. Dealing with highly difficult people may make you think something’s wrong with you. The irony is this: Difficult people can help us grow psychologically, spiritually and in whatever other ways, but when the toll is too high, we start to look elsewhere.
So how do you know if you are dealing with someone who could be a problem? Here are some sure signs:
1. Everything needs to be their idea.
If you’re dealing with a difficult leader, you’re always finding creative ways for them to warm up to an idea you know is right, moral and best for the bigger picture. If you’re an emotionally intelligent person, you can do this, but it takes a lot out of you.
Most of us who have read How to Win Friends and Influence People and other books know that we are all, to some extent, only interested in ourselves and our own needs. But the people who are most difficult don’t just constantly push you — they want all of what you have. They need to get the attention, recognition, accolades and atonement. The problem is they cannot extend empathy to you.
2. Their title contradicts how they treat you.
In other words, people who want you to treat them according to their title often are not worthy of the title. Preservation of self, their job, their needs, money and adoration must be won at all costs. The director of customer service who disparages others in meetings, gossips and blames others for his or her problems can be maddening. Most of us know a title means nothing, it’s how you treat others that matters.
People who quietly serve others and have great empathy often don’t need to have a label to do the right thing. Chances are, if someone has a screaming need to be addressed according to their title or paycheck, they are hiding something.
3. They lack empathy.
Many of us can float in and out of some narcissism. But emotionally intelligent people can come back to earth pretty quickly. They display empathy. They forgive others and forgive themselves. They say sorry, mean it and try to make up for it.
As for highly difficult, true-narcissist types? They’re often able to charm the people they know will champion them and not question them. For those outside that circle, they will keep them from succeeding and make them look foolish in the eyes of others. It’s childish and shockingly bad for the team and for themselves in the long run.
Narcissists need the adoration of their adorers. They reward them handsomely with all sorts of praise, be it verbal or through a raise or promotion. A narcissist can have value as a boss, but you need to know how they think and play them the way you need to.
Now that you’ve identified whether you’re working with a highly difficult person, there are three ways to deal with them:
• Avoid them at all costs, regardless of the money, job or title in store for you.
• Engage with them at arms-length and with great wisdom and creativity.
• Fight with them (though keep in mind this usually won’t change them and will actually empower them).
Know where the narcissists and highly difficult people are at work and in your life. For some of us, you can’t count on changing them — you must assume they may never have a revelation to change for the better.
For those who are hurt mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually by toxic, high-conflict people, it may be time to leave your job. If you engage with these people at work, you must understand the toll that’s being taken on you and whether it’s worth it. If the toll is too high and there really is no escaping it, it’s a sure time to look for another job, another department or another career path.