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We have a team member who has to create some input for a project we are working on. This team member is terribly sensitive to even the slightest criticism. They started a discussion how they feel slighted.

I have a leading role in the team, although I don't have a high managerial role in my organisation's hierarchy. The team member is not my subordinate, they have been loaned to the project in a supporting role. When the team member complained (of a situation in which I was involved), I tried to be fair, accepting and understanding. I apologized for not having considered the impact on their feelings before I took action back then, and reversed my earlier decision. By the way, the decision I had taken was not so unusual, I have made similar ones in other projects without team members complaining, and a senior member of the team confirmed that while the decision fell in somewhat of a grey area, it was not obviously incorrect or insensitive, and the consequences are so minor that it shouldn't have caused drama at all.

The team member accepted my apology. And then they launched the next complaint, about a different situation. This time, they had submitted a document we needed, and somebody from us asked for clarification. It was a terse question, which can certainly be interpreted as a challenge, on the lines of "Here, why do you write that so-and-so?". Back then, the team member had given some answer and the communication about this issue had stalled, mostly because of lack of attention to this detail. Now they informed me that they have removed their document from the shared workspace storage, and that they are considering leaving the project, because they are getting the message that their collaboration is not appreciated and they are unwanted. They have removed a document before in a similar situation, but the "I feel pressured to leave" theme is new.

I certainly would like everybody involved to feel good, and I am aware that more politeness can certainly lubricate the communication. But my view is that this person is badly overreacting. Sure, they don't want to be criticized, nobody does. But saying what amounts to "I will take my dolls and go away if you bad people make me cry", especially when the threshold of them feeling threatened, unwanted, etc. is so much lower than that of most other people I have worked with, is not constructive adult behavior. And sometimes negative feedback is needed, because their work actually needs to be improved now and then. The work of the others (including mine) needs it too, and the frequency and presentation modus of the negative feedback in the project seems to work for everybody else without causing resentment.

In many situations, I find that a frank personal talk about any issues is a good first step to take, but what can I do when even the whiff of criticism makes the person fall into a highly emotional defensive mode, demanding apologies and reassurance that we are not trying to get rid of them?

We don't actually have to work with this person. If they decide to leave, we could get a replacement to supply the same input, or quickly wrap up the project. Still, I find the social situation very intriguing. Is there a way to improve the situation so we can continue to collaborate in a professional manner? Beyond walking on eggshells and reassuring them on every step that we are not mean to them? Is there a way out beyond them parting ways with the team?

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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about a business function (Customer service) rather than navigating the workplace. – IDrinkandIKnowThings May 5 '14 at 21:06
  • @chad this customer is part of the team. We have to work together with them. They are not just buying, but we are in a collaboration situation. A bit like having a customer supplying the requirements in a scrum development project. I only explained that they are a customer to make clear that I don't have seniority over them. – Rumi P. May 5 '14 at 21:11
  • I get that but that is a business function. Customer Service\Customer Management is not on-topic here. – IDrinkandIKnowThings May 5 '14 at 21:14
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    OK, I changed it to read "team member", which is still a true description of their role. They are indeed paid by another organisation, but I don't work in customer service, we are not providing a service to this person specifically, and the fact that they are not employed by my organisation is not very relevant for the way I see the situation. I would like to see some good solution which focus on the fact that this is a person who works on my team, regardless of who is paying them. – Rumi P. May 5 '14 at 21:33
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    This is very abstract — even the wrong-and-weird pronoun “they” makes this hard to read. What was the decision that caused the first complaint ? – Nicolas Barbulesco Jun 23 '14 at 19:17
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Three possible approaches:

  1. Continue to walk on eggshells, catering to this person's unprofessional approach to working on teams. (Not a preferable option).
  2. Get this person to leave your team, either by asking them or asking their supervisor to reassign them. It doesn't sound like that will damage your project significantly.
  3. Have a private conversation in which you make a classic "I" statement. Name the unproductive behavior you have observed, state the effect it has on you personally, and request a change. For example, "When you respond to reasonable questions about your document by becoming offended and deleting it from the repository, I have to do extra work to make sure your department is adequately represented in planning. Please answer the questions people ask you and please recognize that we all need to work together for this project to succeed."

Behavior, effect, change: work out your statement ahead of time so you know your exact message.

Now look: the person will melt down and give you a hard time when you say this. They will not say, "gosh! you're right! I will change my ways!" Don't negotiate. Don't speak for anyone else, only yourself. Don't apologize, neither for yourself or for other team members Just stick to your "behavior, effect, change" formula. Say your piece, and end the conversation.

Give the person a while to think this over. Then, if they can't cooperate, boot them off your team.

  • +1 Great suggestions that work for many managerial issues. – PeteCon Jun 2 '18 at 15:27
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The only way to get rid of the problems a drama queen (genderneutral) causes is to get rid of the drama queen.

If you spend a lot of time you will find ways to navigate around the issues they complain about, but they will find new ones because it is their life mission. They might even complain that you are navigating around them.

If you are in the position to decide, get rid of them, if you are not try to ignore them on not depend on their input. Have a simple plan B for every scenario.

This answer is given in the assumption that sufficient talking has been tried.

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I am going to disagree with the answers given above. The reason being this paragraph:

In many situations, I find that a frank personal talk about any issues is a good first step to take, but what can I do when even the whiff of criticism makes the person fall into a highly emotional defensive mode, demanding apologies and reassurance that we are not trying to get rid of them?

What seems like a frank personal talk to you, is simply not being perceived the same way. Whatever you do in this situation, you first need to understand that this person is reacting this way because in their mind, this is the rational way to react to this. Take away what you think is happening in their mind, and focus on the outcome.

The outcome is that this person is simply not understanding your negative feedback in the same way that the rest of your team does. That is bound to happen since you and your team might have a different team culture. You also mention that this person is an outside collaborator.

In regards to:

Is there a way to improve the situation so we can continue to collaborate in a professional manner?

You have already answered your own question.

I certainly would like everybody involved to feel good, and I am aware that more politeness can certainly lubricate the communication. But my view is that this person is badly overreacting.

How about trying your own advice and bring more politeness to the table? Regardless of whether someone is overreacting or not, it seems like a wasted business opportunity to not try something as simple as more politeness if it can indeed net you better results. If it still doesn't work, I guess it wouldn't have worked out with less politeness either (aka now).

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I've run into several people that fall in that category, some of it in personal relationships and others in professional relationships.

One pattern I noticed was that these people had grown up in abusive environments, often around parents that were addicted to something or who were violent in some form. It was common for the family to close ranks around the abuser - everyone kept it quiet and kept it out of sight of their neighbors and friends - and the authorities.

If they are conditioned to see danger in every interaction, they will be forever on the defensive. There is nothing you can do. In general they have an unrealistically high standard for how they're treated, and your 'normal' interactions will periodically breach those standards. When you do, you'll hear a lot of bellyaching or a tantrum.

If you can find a replacement, do so. Do not try to fix anything, apologize, make unreasonable accommodations, or anything else. If they can't fit in an normal working environment, don't go out of your way. It's up to them to sort themselves out - this shouldn't happen on your nickel.

  • It's called cognitive behavioural therapy. The problem is that the person doesn't see the world as it is, they see slights that didn't happen, they feel their work not being appreciated just because someone asked a question. The condition is self-enforcing but can be broken with the right therapy. By a counsellor, not by you. – gnasher729 Jun 2 '18 at 6:39
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"In many situations, I find that a frank personal talk about any issues is a good first step to take, but what can I do when even the whiff of criticism makes the person fall into a highly emotional defensive mode, demanding apologies and reassurance that we are not trying to get rid of them?"

In my world, non-performing assets get liquidated and sources of frustration get removed. Make that clear to him. Make it clear to him that you are under no obligation to tolerate his act and coddle to his insecurities, which are giving you a headache. Tell him that you have as much sympathy for his insecurities and his disruptive behavior as he has for the headaches he is giving you, and advise him that you don't like getting headaches. If he gets defensive, end the conversation on the spot - For one thing, you've read his script and you don't care to have him reread that script to you. For another thing, you've conveyed your message to him, that was the purpose of the conversation and achieving the purpose of the conversation is all you care about.

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