Leadership: Dealing with Difficult People
“Oh no, here she goes again.” The “difficult” member of your staff has starting being difficult again, discouraging and angering your team members, derailing your vision and plans, and requiring you to devote your time to dealing with her. If you have any leadership experience at all, you’ve had to deal with difficult people within your organization. If you’re just entering leadership, you will, sooner or later, be dealing with difficult people.
If difficult people were all non-productive and untalented, it would be easy to just bypass, ignore, or get rid of them. But the fact is, difficult people are often the most talented people in your organization. They can have very high IQ’s, have great work ethics, and are truly committed to the organization’s success.
At the same time, however, they can be argumentative, bullying, negative loners that have a devastating effect on morale. These are the people that often “brighten a room by leaving it.”
You may be surprised, when you confront them, that your comments deeply hurt. Many don’t see themselves as difficult at all, and for a leader, this can be truly frustrating. Difficult people take inordinate amounts of a leader’s time, and they can consume much of an organization’s energy. They aren’t stupid, and in most cases, aren’t purposely disruptive. So what is it?
Daniel Goleman, science writer for the New York Times, has written a book on what’s called “Emotional Intelligence.” EQ is defined in general terms, as the ability to read non-verbal feedback from others, and to adjust yourself accordingly. It’s understanding how you are perceived by others, and caring enough about that perception to change. It’s the ability to be self-aware, to love and be loved, to build long-term meaningful relationships. It’s a measurement of empathy and altruism. It’s a predictor of teamwork, attitude, and long-term value to an organization.
I don’t know enough about either psychology or pathology to argue one way or the other on Goleman’s finer technical points, but I do know from personal experience that people defined by others as difficult exhibit most of the characteristics that Goleman and others list.
Let’s look at a few examples of difficult people, and how you deal with them.
The Negator (often self described “realist”)
This is the person, that always sees the glass half empty. These folks will completely suck the joy and energy out of a planning session. They feel justified because, after all, “Don’t we want to be realistic?” “You’re not just looking for ‘yes-men’ are you?” “I just want us to walk into this with our eyes wide open.”
There is room in any situation for a frank appraisal, but the Negator goes far beyond that. The tempting, and common response is to just stop inviting him to the meetings. The problem with that approach is that often his industry knowledge or technical insights are valuable and needed, and meeting without him is not in the best interests of the company.
There’s a great saying, attributed to Ben Franklin that applies here. “Any fool can tear down, criticize, and complain and most do.”
Here’s a possible approach. “Fred, you’re one of the most knowledgeable people in the company, and we need your insights. But, Fred, at the last meeting, you spent 30 minutes telling us why the new campaign could not work. Any of us can detail the problems, that’s not hard at all. We need you to help us find solutions. Fred, IF you have concerns about this project, I want you to express them to me privately, and not in the meeting, because its discouraging to the other folks. Can we agree on that?”
These folks are just simply unfriendly. What I’ve found amazing is that they seldom view themselves that way. I heard a speech on customer service years ago where the speaker was asked, “How do you get your employees to be friendly to customers?” His answer was, “Only hire friendly people, and it won’t be a problem.” That’s actually great advice. But if you already have a talented Scowler aboard, what do you do about it. (As a side note . . .AVOID hiring Scowlers)
While you can’t dictate emotions, you can dictate behavior. These types of people respond best to a very direct approach. “Gail, you are perceived here as being very unfriendly, and I need for you and I to change that perception. (be prepared for disbelief, have examples, and don’t waiver) Here’s what we’ll do. You must smile, and greet every single person that passes your desk. You need to say please and thank you with a smile. IF you have a disagreement with another employee, I don’t want you to handle it yourself. I want you to talk with me first. Gail, we MUST change this perception because it is hurting both you and the company.”
Then write all of that down in list form and give it to her. You will have to provide very direct feedback. “Gail, the communication you sent to Bill could have been phrased a lot more politely. Please try and avoid sending communication like that. Remember what we talked about?”
As I said, you may not be able to dictate attitude, but you can dictate behavior. The Yaskawa company, in their Chicago area manufacturing plant, actually has policies that apply to being friendly. They insist that employees not pass one another without a friendly greeting. If an employee drops something, anyone near them is to stop their work and help pick it up. Yaskawa, with an incredible commitment to excellence in manufacturing, says that part of that excellence is a friendly work atmosphere.
Demand that your team is friendly, and as the leader, be sure that you are setting the example.
Bullies have to be dealt with immediately and forcefully. Bullies use their position, or knowledge to attempt intimidation. They will excuse the behavior by saying, “look, we have high standards and there is no excuse for him not living up to them.” Bullies will cost you talented employees, and they won’t just leave, they’ll leave angry. You can’t ignore this.
Leadership, in the words of John Maxell, is influence, and influence is leadership. Position and knowledge can also be forms of leadership, but on a much lower level.
First of all, tell the Bully to stop. and don’t sugarcoat it. Tell him that his behavior is out of line, and that you want it stopped and not repeated. Allow him no wiggle room here at all. If you waiver, he will take it as acceptance of the behavior.
After that, you can put on your softer hat, and try to help him. Explain that the highest form of leadership is influence, and that with his knowledge and experience, he’s in a position to exert great influence. Tell him that if people are motivated to avoid him, his influence is greatly limited.
Some Bullies are fully aware of what they’re doing, but surprisingly, many are not. They just see themselves as enforcers of standards, and they are simply trying to motivate others to perform better. They just lack the EQ to recognize how they’re being perceived.
In either case, as the leader, demand that the bullying behavior stop at once.
These are folks, usually very intelligent folks, that rarely ever make decisions, because they continually see more options. “Well, we could do this, but on the other hand, we could try that, or how about going about it this way…” and etc. If this person were in charge of a rifle range, it would be: “Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim,”
The Optioneers will drive other folks in your organization crazy.
Andy Stanley, pastor and founder of a very large church near Atlanta, says, “If the vision is clear, the options are few, and the decisions are easy.” The problem with most Optioneers is that they lack a clear vision. As the leader, you have to cast a very precise and clear vision to them. These people, just like most people that lack EQ, do not read between the lines. So by clear, I mean clear. Once you’ve done that, keep pulling the Optioneer back to the vision. They often have valuable insights, you just have to keep them focused. Try to have them give the options to only a small group of people, possibly just to you. Then tell them clearly which options you will consider, and forbid them from bringing up the remainder. Keep them focused.
It may help to remind them that the perfect can be the enemy of the good. There will never be a case where one has ALL the facts, ALL the information, or ALL the bases covered. You have to eventually pull the trigger.
Contrarians are usually nice folks. They just naturally take the path that no one else is on. They can be extremely valuable to an organization in part, because they don’t mind “marching to a different drummer.” They are often natural leaders, and can have a good following within the company. However, they can be frustrating to both you and your team at times. And worse, they can push their personal vision to the point of undermining the corporate vision. They can even do this without malice, and without intentionally hurting you.
Contrarians will do their best to avoid team functions. They can be quite creative in coming up with reasons why it’s in the interest of the company that they stay and do other work instead of attending. If everyone else decides to wear your company shirts on Friday as a team building exercise, this is the one that shows up dressed differently.
Contrarians have to be dealt with carefully. You don’t want to stifle their leadership or creativity, but you need them fully engaged with your team. Start by recognizing their gifts and talents publicly. This demonstrates to them and to your team that you consider them valuable.
Then privately express your frustration with them always backing away from the team. “Susan, I spend a lot of time planning our weekly production meeting, and you appear to work hard at avoiding it. Why?” They will probably tell you that while others may need that encouragement, they are getting their work done, and don’t need it.
You then have to say, very clearly, “We are a team, not just a group of individuals. When one team member is absent, it hurts all of us. You have insights to share that will help the group, and frankly, Susan, you need the insights the other team members have as well. No one knows everything. ” Tell her that you want to see her engage with the team, and that you expect nothing less. Then follow it up with another compliment. These are valuable people that just need a bit of guidance. Don’t discourage them.
Here’s some good news; Goleman says that EQ can be learned, at least in part. So, difficult people can sometimes be coached into being less difficult. Here’s the bad news, ignoring difficult people can destroy your organization.
There are instances when the only course of action is to terminate. Jim Collins in Good to Great says that you should ask this question about a problematic employee, “If I knew then what I know now, would I still hire this person?”
If the answer is no, then termination is probably the wisest course.