What is it about human nature, this innate behaviour of not sharing, not collaborating, protecting what’s ours or not making it easy for others? I’ve seen it develop in my young kids as they transition from kinder to school and I’ve seen it in the executive ranks of large corporates. I wonder, is it something we inherit as a member of the human race or something we learn as we start to find our place in the world? One thing is for sure, there are plenty of people out there who display this on a daily basis, it might be to justify their existence, their title and power, it makes them feel better about themselves or just because they can. While facing this negativity will trigger off a range of emotions from anger and frustration to self doubt and fear, you can’t outrun them, difficult people are everywhere and they exist in both our personal and professional lives. With a few simple tips you can learn to manage them and even use them to your advantage.
Tip 1 Walk in their Shoes- What motivates them, what is driving their behaviour, and what is their win/loss position. Characterise these elements and what actions could be taken to compliment the drivers. More technical motivators such as financial, resources, risk, quality or innovation are easier to solve for as there will be a technical solution however behavioural motivators such as personality, status and power, will require more adaptive thinking to find a point of intersection. In this case the action may become an approach which allows you to manage them more effectively.
Tip 2 Take Accountability -It’s easy to blame others for being unreasonable, or difficult or grandstanding especially when we are frustrated and feel like we are doing the best we can, rarely do we stop and reflect on what role we have played or take accountability, after all they are our stakeholder. Sit down and play back interactions which haven’t gone so well, the difficult meeting, the late night phone call, the copy all email, the customer complaint, what could you have done differently, what were the triggers and more importantly how do you avoid them in the future. Give it a try, it’s quite liberating.
Tip 3 Keep your Friends close – It’s easier to throw stones when you’re not invested in something or someone on a personal or professional level. Get to know them, sit down over a cup of coffee and connect on a human level, be vulnerable, after all we all have our hopes, dreams, disappointments and fears. Invite them to help you, seek their thoughts and advice, how would they approach it, turn your biggest critic into your biggest ally by getting their buy in, after all when was the last time someone critiqued their own work.
Tip 4 Win Trust – Credibility and trust are two key elements, having this established allows you to quickly close out outstanding issues and concerns. The reverse is also true, if they don’t trust what you have told them, this will lead to more questions, sending you into a spiral of rework and reactive behaviour where suddenly everything you are doing now comes under the microscope. Trust can be built by starting with small things like returning calls when you said you would or following up and closing out outstanding actions. Make sure everything you present is well researched and based on fact not emotion. It may seem simple but you would be amazed how often these basic professional skills are overlooked.
Tip 5 Source of Truth – Nothing frustrates someone and gets them offside more than receiving contradictory information from multiple sources, it erodes your brand and diminishes that level of trust. This can be difficult to manage especially if you are in an agile environment where things are changing quickly and there are multiple touch points both across an organisation or within the same business. A source of truth needs to be established and an effective operating rhythm to be able to swiftly move key information to and from people. Keep it simple, delayer levels of engagement in favour of more targeted clear information, bring complementary groups together so they all hear the same message and think about the best mechanisms of communication.
Tip 6 The How - How are you engaging them, are you always asking for last minute approvals, sending out documents the night before decision making meetings or consistently surprising them with bad news. Do they know what to expect, a regular email update from your established source of truth which tracks progress against key success criteria will be more powerful than rounds of meetings where messages can get diluted and skewed.
Tip 7 It’s OK to Push Back – The natural disposition of most of us faced with a difficult person, especially a senior one, is to do what needs to be done to shut down the noise. The trouble is though, you can caught in a cycle of even greater and greater demands, feeding the behaviour and before long you are full time managing difficult people and not focused on the job at hand. It is OK to push back and challenge if you don’t agree, it is the way you go about it that is important as done correctly you will build rapport and trust. Listen, acknowledge their concerns, have fact based conversations anchoring back to the source of truth, be respectful and collaborative instead of confrontational and work through the solution.
Tip 8 Change your Mindset - If you see a difficult person as a thorn in your side, someone who voices their concerns at every turn and always wears the black hat then try thinking about it from a different angle. It’s healthy to have conflict and challenge, use the feedback or reasons why you can’t do something as a way to strengthen your solution or approach, in the end they are doing you a favour, the quality of the outcome will be far superior than having a group of advisors who nod their heads and tell you what you want to hear. Embrace the feedback and actively encourage and seek it out, only then can you truly harness the power of a difficult person.