Lucy Kellaway: as a columnist, being difficult is part of the job

Lucy Kellaway: as a columnist, being difficult is part of the job


Being difficult at work is not generally thought to be a good thing – but it can be

 

Margaret Thatcher: Google reveals twice the matches for “a difficult woman” as for “a difficult man” – and most of the references to difficult men don’t count because they continue with “to pin down”. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

Margaret Thatcher: Google reveals twice the matches for “a difficult woman” as for “a difficult man” – and most of the references to difficult men don’t count because they continue with “to pin down”. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

 

Last week I had a disagreement on a matter of principle with a man at work. When I got home, I gave my daughter a blow-by-blow account of the bust-up, expecting her loyal support. Instead she rolled her eyes.

“Poor X,” she said, siding with my adversary.

“Poor X?” I repeated, thunderstruck.

“You can be very difficult,” she explained. “I don’t think you realise it.”

She is right about the second point. I do not see myself as difficult – I am perfectly reasonable. To check this was the consensus view, the following morning I conducted a survey. I bearded the first colleague I saw and demanded: “Am I difficult?” He looked uncomfortable at being put on the spot when he had barely taken his coat off. “Yes,” he said. I asked three more people. All gave the same answer.

Being difficult at work is not generally thought to be a good thing. On Amazon there are 1,387 titles on how to deal with difficult people, including Since Strangling Isn’t an Option. I failed to find a single volume called What to do When the Difficult Person is Me. Or How to be Difficult and Influence People.

As a columnist, being difficult is part of the job – if you do not enjoy sometimes getting up the noses of readers, you are too bland to be any good. Indeed, as a journalist, being personally difficult can serve you rather well. I can think of one or two writers who are so impossible their text is never tampered with. Their words invariably command pride of place because no editor can face the fuss that would result from doing otherwise.

Being difficult has other advantages too. It means that people tend not to lean on you for small favours. As one of the most important tricks to survival in the corporate world is to avoid grunt work, this makes it a powerful weapon. Being difficult also means you are likely to be better at getting your own way. It is a balancing act – you must be difficult enough to insist that things are done as you see fit, without being so difficult that people refuse to work with you.

There are lots of different sorts of difficult. The books list various common varieties, all of which are unattractive: narcissists, psychopaths, victims, gossips, blamers and people who fly off the handle.

Yet there is a further sort of difficult that I cannot find in any book, and is not at all unattractive. That is being a woman. Women are far more likely to be called difficult than men. Google reveals twice the matches for “a difficult woman” as for “a difficult man” – and most of the references to difficult men don’t count because they continue with “to pin down”.

Contrary

Equally, most of the people calling women difficult are men. The four colleagues I consulted first thing were all male. Later I put the same question to four FT women. “Not especially,” was the consensus view.

The difficult label is applied to any woman who is sometimes prepared to be contrary, who does not always agree with other people, and who fights her own corner. All of that is vital if you want to get things done or change anything at all. Prime minister Theresa May, according to former cabinet minister Ken Clarke, is a “bloody difficult woman” – and one sincerely hopes he is right, given the size of the challenge that faces her.

To settle the matter in my case I asked a male colleague who, being thoroughly difficult himself, has never been known to deviate from the truth. “No,” he said. “You aren’t difficult. You are immovable, determined, stubborn and sometimes impossible.”

All of which makes me long to be merely difficult. Indeed the badge “difficult woman” is one I am inclined to wear with pride. Stripped of baggage, it is a compliment that means “requiring skill to understand”. Proust is more difficult than Enid Blyton.

There is another point about being difficult. It is a perk that comes with position. When you are junior, being difficult is likely to result in the sack. The more senior you become, the more scope there is for you to be difficult – and more of a call for it, too.

This summer I will leave journalism and start all over again, training to be a maths teacher. Being difficult with my new colleagues will be out of the question, so I am going to enjoy it to the hilt while I still can.

 

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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