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How to Manage Having a “Difficult” Reputation

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Coming this fall, Katherine Heigel is back on TV with a new show, but it seems people are still more interested in talking about her old work—particularly her reputation for being "difficult" and a "diva" on set. In an interview with the Television Critics Association, one bold reporter asked her if she's changed or if she's still a pain to deal with. After a long, awkward pause Heigel answered, "I certainly don't see myself as being difficult; I would never intend to be difficult."

But maybe she shouldn't change. Perhaps instead of asking a woman why she's difficult, we need to look at why we're calling her that in the first place. 

It may not make friends, but being assertive and demanding can help you be more successful at work. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that women who are perceived as agreeable or "playing nice" in the workplace are paid less than their more aggressive counterparts. They're also seen as less competent and professional. 

"There is a persistent double standard where men are called 'honest and direct' and women are called 'bitchy' when standing up for what we believe still exists whether we like it or not," writes Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D, for Psychology Today. "Yes, you should share ideas and perspective that conflict with the general view, because they can be useful and your contribution will be noticed. Yet the way you express yourself will affect how well you will be heard and judged."

On the other hand, no one likes to be told that they're "that person" who won't listen to anyone else's opinion, demands their way, and hijacks projects. There has to be a balance; it isn't that you're not right or can't get your way, rather it's how you get your way that's important.

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So what do you do if you've been told you're difficult or a diva? Kitty Soldano, Ph.D., the clinical director for Harding Hospital outpatient behavioral health services at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says it's not about changing who you are, but rather about emphasizing your strengths while allowing others to use theirs as well. 

The first thing to do is acknowledge that there may be a problem. As Heigel has shown, what other people think matters. Be honest with yourself about what your strengths and weaknesses are. 

Next, Soldano recommends checking in with others for their feedback to learn about how you are perceived. This could mean looking over past performance reviews, asking your boss, or listening to a trusted friend—emphasis on the listening. Resist the urge to defend yourself or try to correct their impressions. "Using the feedback you got, you can start working on being more aware of what you are doing and making little concessions," she says. 

Strong people often focus too much on trying to get others on board with doing what they want rather than examining their own processes. But being assertive is just one tool, and smart, strong women have other strengths too, Reynolds writes. Look at other areas you're strong in like leadership, ingenuity, intuitiveness, or perseverance, and cultivate those. 

Last, Soldano says to make it a point to be open to different viewpoints rather than immediately dismissing them because they don't align with your vision. Ask questions and give people an opportunity to explain their answers, so that they feel heard. Look for opportunities to compromise, even if it's not your first impulse. 


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