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Charlotte Amalie
Thursday, June 20, 2024
HomeNewsArchivesSource Manager's Journal: The Manager and the 'Difficult Person'

Source Manager's Journal: The Manager and the 'Difficult Person'

In one of Jamaica Kincaid's short stories, a young woman keeps asking the same question about her annoying boss "How does a person get to be that way?" Many bosses ask the same question about some of their staff members, if they can get beyond the more immediate question, which is what am I going to do about this person before they drive me over the edge? The Harvard Business Review recently reported that most people would rather work with a marginally capable nice person than a highly effective jerk. Who wouldn't?
I do a lot of planning with organizations. In recent years, I have identified an interesting progression. When leaders and managers make a laundry list of problems that impede their effectiveness, "difficult people" typically appear somewhere in the middle of the unranked items. Then the group ranks them in order of importance, that is: what keeps you awake at night? At this point, the difficult person invariably moves way up the list. Then you ask the question, "What happens to the organization because of this problem or person?", and the issue almost always shoots to somewhere near the top.
This upward progression is almost always a surprise to the management group, at least until they begin a discussion of the impact of the truly difficult person. The reason for this unwarranted surprise is that, like many things in life, people have gotten accustomed to behaviors that range from outside the norm to outrageous. I have had leaders ask me to observe executive management meetings to assess team interactions as well as individual behaviors. On at least three occasions I have said to the leader, step outside yourself and put yourself in the consultant's place. Here is the behavior that I just observed; what would you think? In all three instances, they said that they would immediately fire the person or they would send them to employee assistance for help. Humans get used to a lot of things that we should not get used to.
Unacceptable behaviors occur on a continuum that runs from the merely annoying to the organizationally toxic. There are few bright lines of division between the annoying and the destructive, which is part of what makes dealing with the difficult person so difficult. Most of us try to avoid conflicts, and conflict avoidance is the mother's milk of truly destructive people. It is often what gives them their edge. Each new day without a challenge means that whatever they are doing has just received additional tacit approval and become more difficult to confront. A basic rule in dealing with difficult people: hard today, harder tomorrow.
In thinking about what to do, what tools to use, let's start with two assumptions: Assumption one is that there are almost always different choices in dealing with these problems. Doing nothing is one of those choices, often the easiest. Assumption two is that doing nothing is almost always a bad choice, one that is personally and organizationally costly.
Difficult people fall into categories that reflect the behaviors that make managing them so difficult and frustrating. Here is a list of the behaviors that are most often cited by managers:
Passive aggression, fault finding, complaining, whining: These are among the most destructive behaviors in any organization. They derail execution of changes, demoralize staff, contribute to cultures that are negative and undermine effective leadership and management. They are often slippery and difficult to deal with.
Bullying: The bully gets his or her way by undermining and diminishing others and has a toxic effect on the organization's culture.
Arrogance, know-it-allism, demeaning others: Everyone has seen these behaviors. The consequences are broken communication, broken trust and unit and individual isolation. Arrogance is frequently confused with competence, a mistake that typically results in significant organizational errors.
Resistance, negativism, excuse-making, blaming and blame avoidance: These are the people who can immediately give you ten reasons why something cannot be done but never have a suggestion for how to do it. Their sentences frequently begin with "but." They are among the easiest to spot.
Self-seeking and narcissism: In a culture in which praise for mediocrity is considered mandatory and "my" self-fulfillment is the paramount value, this group is a growing blight on organizational life. If they reach critical mass, the result is a version of an NBA basketball team, a dozen misfits, each of whom thinks that he is Number One.
Non-listening: Fairly easy to spot. These are people who are preparing their next remarks rather than listening when someone else is talking. Major contributors to bad decisions and failed execution.
Slipperiness: You can't pin them down. Did they say they were going to do it or didn't they? Did they do it? What exactly did they do? Was there an outcome? You never know.
Rudeness, incivility, crudeness and so called free spirits: Sometimes mistaken for being truth-tellers or seen as being cute and harmless, these people demoralize groups, undermine trust and damage effective communication.
Backbiting, backstabbing, and victimization: Everyone has seen them. The bosses are screwing us, so let's shoot them down. These individuals engage in a never-ending search to prove that they are victims, and they are always seeking new recruits to the cause. Not always easy to spot, but fairly effective in damaging the organization if not addressed.
So what is a manager to do? The starting point is to be alert to the emergence of these behaviors to avoid a negative dynamic taking root. There is a sequence, in which asking and answering the right questions provides a solid platform for action. None of this is ever easy. The most immediate questions are: What is the problem? Why is this bothering me so much? Why is this person doing this (often a tough question because the manager has to look at his or her own behavior at this point)? What negative impact is this person and the behavior having in the workplace? And, in most cases, How do I take what has been buried or implicit and bring it to the surface so that everyone understands the damage that is being done?
Step two is to understand all of the choices that are available. These choices vary greatly. For example, in the Virgin Islands, with very strong job protections, the range is probably more limited. Question one is, Can I live with this situation over the long-term? Is there an argument for doing nothing beyond having a conversation with the person? Are there grounds for disciplinary action or termination? Finally, if I am going to confront this behavior openly, what exactly am I going to say – a script – that has the best chance of resolving the problem? This last question implies that the goal is not just to ventilate so that one feels better for half an hour.
The final step is taking action. Here there is a simple question: Can I come up with any reason – beyond discomfort and avoidance – for not taking this action today? Remember the rule: If it is hard today, it will just be harder tomorrow. Like the old Nike commercial said, Just Do It.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
Readers are invited to submit questions, topics or issues that they would like addressed in a column. Submit to source@viaccess.net.

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