Difficult People: Persuade Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

These people are not easy to persuade. They are generally open to only one view of reality—theirs. Neophyte leaders always start out trying to convince difficult people of the unreasonableness of their negative convictions, but after many failed attempts they understandably conclude they are wasting their time and energy. Miserable people embrace their convictions with religious intensity. Converting them is not a percentage play.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

But there is always a chance you can turn these people around. Admittedly it’s a small one. The odds are about the same as winning the lottery. But the payoff when you succeed is so great that giving persuasion a try should remain one of your options. The grudging testimonials of the formerly embittered are among the sweetest leadership moments you will ever experience.

How can you do it?

  1. Give persuasion a chance. You will never win any of the arguments you fail to make.
  2. Accept that their point of view is legitimate. You will not persuade others to consider another explanation if you persist in viewing them and their positions as ridiculous. This is not easy. You will usually be convinced they are. Get over yourself.
  3. Make a convincing case. You will find this is a lot harder than it sounds. “Because I said so,” only works for parents. And it doesn’t work very well for them.
  4. Admit that you might turn out to be wrong. This is not a tough admission to make. You frequently will be wrong.
  5. Ask them to give your approach a try. After all, you are looking for results. If what you are proposing does not work out, you will be among the first to junk the idea. Promise to give them the credit if your suggested approach works.
  6. Don’t expect too much. They will not likely turn into positive people. That’s not the point. Leaders must recruit a new group of volunteer soldiers before every battle. Having these people with you now and then is a lot better than never having them with you at all.

How have you successfully persuaded difficult people to take a more positive view?

Difficult People: Use Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

It is difficult to take anything these people say seriously. They complain about everything. Their complaints are usually unreasonable. They spin the truth until it’s dizzy. They never hold themselves accountable but insist on blaming others for what goes wrong. They even blame others for the way they feel. They make ordinary selfishness look like a positive character trait. It is no wonder that leaders conclude these tiresome folks can contribute little of value to the team.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

As annoying as these people can be, they occasionally have a point. They are always looking for problems. Sometimes they find real ones. Their outrageous allegations can become the pretext for launching an investigation that reveals their false accusations for which you can hold them accountable. Their agitation may allow you to make the change they are demanding, often the very last thing they really want. Finally, you can always use miserable people as examples to others. Most people don’t want to turn out this way.

How can you do it?

  1. View their complaints as potential opportunities to improve. They do create discomfort and, viewed as a stimulus for needed change, it is of some value.
  2. Document their complaints about others. Over time, this pattern of talking behind others’ backs will convince everyone that their expulsion from the team as a net-negative colleague is justified.
  3. Investigate their allegations. You will sometimes find a real problem that needs to be solved.
  4. Give them what (they say) they want. Use their complaints as the justification for making painful change. When others protest, send them to the whiner who suggested it.

How have you successfully used difficult people to add value to your work environment?

Difficult People: Circumvent Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Leaders often fail to consider this option. They become so preoccupied with their aggravation and desire for behavioral change they can think of little else. If they do think of it, they may consider this option distasteful. Why should they have to work around people who are supposed to pull their weight like everyone else? Others may be less than enthusiastic about going along with this option, too. By being difficult, these provocateurs are demanding—and receiving—what amounts to special treatment. Only one thing is more annoying than greasing the squeaky wheels in our lives and that is listening to them screech.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

This may not be the best available option or even a good one, but it is an option. It almost certainly is not a permanent solution. It does buy some time while you consider better alternatives. Some difficult people bring such critical strengths to the team that everyone is willing to accommodate and compensate for their glaring shortcomings. All of us need others to cut us some slack. It’s the excessive amount of slack these folks require that chafes so.

How can you do it?

  1. Consider this option. Calm yourself. Ask your aggravated colleagues to set their understandable feelings aside for a moment to brainstorm objectively about how this management technique might work.
  2. Admit that this is not an ideal solution. We all do a lot better when we face reality and our feelings are acknowledged.
  3. Adopt circumvention as a trial solution. If this strategy is judged to have merit, most people will be willing to give it a try— if they are certain the leader will revisit the issue when it is clear the trial has failed.
  4. Explain exactly how this will work. This approach cannot allow the pouter to get his way entirely, but you can usually find a way to redistribute the work unequally in a way that is still fair overall.
  5. Reevaluate this strategy after everyone has given it a fair chance. Leaders often forget to follow up on things. Yes, there are a lot of things. But following up consistently on the details is one of the ordinary ways extraordinary leaders set themselves apart.

How have you successfully circumvented the difficult people in your organization?

Difficult People: Expose Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

This is the nuclear option. Things will never be the same after you have revealed the secret conniver for the scoundrel he really is. Because of its risk of irreparable damage, leaders are rightly hesitant to launch this missile. And it is not easy to come up with the evidence you need to hold these sly pot-stirrers publicly accountable. They tend to cover their tracks very well. Once you’ve done this, you’ve pretty much destroyed the effectiveness of your other available management techniques.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

A good number of difficult people work underground. They misbehave when the leader is not around. They only show themselves to people who share their views or are unable to stand up to them. When on stage, sugar wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Secrecy is their favorite workplace currency. For these folks, the only way to contain their damaging machinations is to expose their cagey behaviors to the light.

How can you do it?

  1. Document their behavior. This may take some time. Don’t make the mistake of accusing them publicly until you have the goods. Those who have complained to you in private will deny they ever said any such thing. When people complain to you, document their complaint in an email back to them immediately. Those with legitimate complaints will be willing to go on the record. Those whose motivations are dishonorable won’t make the mistake of trying to manipulate you again.
  2. Don’t depend on one witness or challenge an isolated occurrence. Establish a pattern. Persuade several witnesses to go on the record. There are obviously a number of exceptions to this guideline. Depending on the seriousness of the infraction, you may have to intervene before your case is rock solid.
  3. Recognize that exposing the bad behavior is only one step in the management process. You must follow the exposure with a mandatory performance improvement plan. And you must insist that the bad behavior change or else.

How have you effectively exposed difficult people in your work environment?

Difficult People: Ignore Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Difficult people are hard to ignore. By their very nature, they burrow under our emotional skins. Everyone tends to react to their goading before thinking. Leaders are hesitant to ignore them for another important reason, too. Concerned leaders worry that ignoring the jerks will send the message that their behavior is acceptable, that they can act anyway they please without being held to account.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Selectively ignoring these worrisome folk can be an effective management technique, but it may only be used in special circumstances. First, their aggrieved colleagues must all agree that these troublesome people are net-positive. Second, everyone must conclude that the annoying behavior is unlikely to change. Finally, those affected must agree that—all things considered—ignoring the miscreant is the best available option. When these conditions are met, the decision to ignore obnoxious behavior may trigger a collective sigh of relief. There are times when nothing else will work.

How can you do it?

  1. Consider this option. Most people don’t think of this as a viable management technique. They want something done. They want these people out of the workplace. But this is an option that should always make the list. And it will often turn out to be the best option.
  2. Go over the pros and cons of this approach with those involved. This simple but powerful mental exercise will persuade others that this may be the best approach.
  3. Make the case. Remind yourself and your colleagues that while you cannot change others’ behavior, you can predict them. And you can manage them.
  4. Give permission. People need this. Tell your colleagues, “When Dr. Smith yells at you on the phone, tell her to call you back when she can behave civilly, and hang up the phone.” Don’t worry. Dr. Smith will call back. And she will be nice. After all, what options does she have? Is she going to call your boss and complain, “I was just yelling at James on the phone and he hung up on me!” I think not.

How have you successfully ignored difficult people in your workplace?

Difficult People: Convert Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Leaders don’t spend much time considering this possibility. They know it is rare. Newbie leaders regularly make the mistake of dreaming that they can turn these people around. After hours of wasted effort and multiple backstabbing wounds, they promise themselves never to be so naïve again. Trying to get difficult people to the altar is a lot harder than persuading the average sinner to repent. Repentant sinners feel badly about what they have done. Pot-stirrers are convinced they are doing God’s work.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Everyone deserves a chance to turn his life around. When you give difficult people compelling evidence about how their colleagues perceive them, a few of them will be genuinely shocked. When you inform them about the consequences that will follow if they continue behaving this way and you follow through on your promises, a small number of these folks will actually change. A former fomenter who has seen the light and followed it is a powerful force for good in any work environment. Misplaced optimism is uncalled for, but failure to recognize this possibility and giving it a chance to succeed is an opportunity not to be missed.

How can you do it?

  1. Inform difficult people that they are difficult. Make sure it’s not just your opinion. Conduct a facilitated 360-degree evaluation and share the unvarnished results with them.
  2. Reassure them they can turn themselves around if they are willing to pay the price. Don’t mislead them about how hard this will be. If you have examples of colleagues who have done it, refer the struggler to them for mentoring.
  3. Tell them exactly what to do. If they had realized what they were doing was impairing their effectiveness, they would have already stopped it. When prescribing the cure, stick to behavior. Don’t worry about motivation. People who achieve sustained change focus on their behaviors first. They choose to do the right things in spite of how they feel.
  4. Cut them some slack while they do it. People do not change overnight. They slip back into their old ways. Backsliding is to be expected. Confront them quickly. Falling down is not the problem—unless it keeps on happening. When they won’t get up, it’s time to stop hoping, face the likelihood that they are not going to change and do the right thing.
  5. Give them positive reinforcement when it is deserved. Don’t compliment them just for trying. Compliment them for changed behavior.

How have you successfully converted a difficult person?

Difficult People: Involve Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Leaders who have already made up their minds and are intent on bringing others around to their point of view don’t want to be bothered by their critics. Difficult people are often critical no matter what leaders suggest. Most annoyingly, they often make persuasive cases and persuade others to join their cause. Even when difficult people have a point that should be heard, they express it in an unpleasant way. Given all the aggravation they cause, leaders are understandably reluctant to involve troublemakers in the decision-making process.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Let’s face it. You can’t stop them from being involved. Difficult people have an opinion about everything and they will make themselves heard. You might as well hear their views up front. This will decrease the credibility of their usual complaint that they were left out and give you the chance to come up with convincing rebuttals if their grumblings have no real merit. But the most important reason to involve difficult people is that they are sometimes right. Just because something is hard to hear does not mean you don’t need to hear it.

How can you do it?

  1. Submit the proposal to everyone involved. Outline the overall pros and cons of the proposed change. Refer to the data or the scientific evidence for and against the change.
  2. Arrange for a public hearing. In today’s electronic community meeting space, a summary email blast inviting comment and giving the deadline for a response is usually sufficient to get the discussion going.
  3. Concentrate on coming up with the best idea—even if it comes from a rabble-rouser. When you set out with the single-minded intent to win, you may miss a brilliant insight in your fervor to smother the opposition.

How have you successfully involved difficult people in decision-making in your work environment?

Difficult People: Confront Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Not many of us wake up hoping for the chance to confront someone today. Confrontation is hard and unpleasant. Most leaders go out of their way to avoid it. When they finally do it, they often do it badly. They confront difficult colleagues when they are angry and before they have prepared adequately. As a result, the confrontation doesn’t go well. A botched confrontation may even make matters worse. A natural dread of conflict and previous painful experiences disincline leaders to confront difficult people even when they should, even when they must.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Everyone knows there is a problem. And everyone is watching to see whether the leader will do the right thing. This is one of those core leadership competencies that are hard to perfect. Thankfully, confrontation is not an everyday leadership task. That means there are limited opportunities to practice. The grudging admiration of observers and a feeling of relief afterwards are the only pleasant feelings the effective confronter can expect. Any such high risk, low reward activity cannot be expected to rise to the top of the leader’s to do list.

How can you do it?

  1. Accept this as your duty. Yes, it is unpleasant, but this is what you signed up for. Stop putting it off.
  2. Prepare. This is not something you—or anyone—can do by the seat of your pants. Collect the objective documentation you need. Make notes. Practice with a colleague beforehand.
  3. Give fair warning. No one wants to be ambushed. Tell the difficult person what you want to talk about and set up an appointment. This creates the opportunity for the offender to admit wrongdoing right up front. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it jumpstarts the improvement process.

How have you successfully confronted difficult people?

Difficult People: Accept Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

We want people to be like us. We want them to think the way we do. We want them to feel the way we feel and react the way we do. We want them to share our perceptions and priorities. We want them to agree with us and support us. If they would just do that, we could continue to delude ourselves that we are right and the rest of the world is wrong. We could feel special. When people refuse to meet our needs by being different, we try to change them. This doesn’t work, but we just keep trying. And we feel frustrated when they refuse to change. People change all the time, but they change when they want to, not because we want them to.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Accepting others as they are and facing your powerlessness to change them is liberating. Much of the pointless frustration you have been experiencing will disappear. You will be more inclined to invest time and energy in what you can change. And since most of your fellow leaders are making exactly the same mistake, you can become a source of inspiration to others. Replacing the annoyance of meaningless effort with a clear perspective and purposeful action transforms a common leadership failure into a new leadership competency. How’s that for a compelling case for change?

How can you do it?

  1. Face facts. Difficult people are probably going to remain difficult. You can’t change them. Only they can do that. You can change your reactions to them, though.
  2. Take full responsibility for your pointless longing. Recognize that you are accountable for your beliefs, your unrealistic expectations and your tendency to ruminate when things are not as you want them to be.
  3. Admit this to several of your colleagues. There’s something about speaking the truth out loud that limits your ability to continue to fool yourself.
  4. Choke off your pointless rumination. When you find yourself obsessing about and resenting a jerk’s intransigence, confront yourself about your wasteful mental behavior, and distract yourself with some healthy mental activity instead.
  5. Acknowledge the progress that you and others make. When you realize that you and your colleagues have decreased the time you spend longing for difficult people to change, celebrate that. This is actually a pretty big deal.

How have you improved your work environment by simply accepting difficult people as they are?

Difficult People: Neutralize Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Most of us react to difficult people by blaming them for the way we feel. This makes some sense. After all, they are unpleasant. When they complain, we usually feel annoyed. When they criticize or demean us, we feel hurt and aggravated. When they throw temper fits in frustration, we blame ourselves even when the mistake was trivial or not even our fault. Most of us are too busy reacting to realize that we have choices about whether and how to react.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Difficult people cause trouble in the workplace by triggering unpleasant feelings in others. If you can uncouple the difficult behavior from the unpleasant feelings that ordinarily result, you can neutralize the jerk by removing his power to disrupt. The realization that your feelings are your own, that you are free to feel this way or another way and that you can react in the way you choose in spite how you feel is enormously liberating. If you demonstrate this ability and give others permission to use the same approach, you can effectively neutralize difficult people.

How can you do it?

  1. Recognize that you have the power. Remind yourself that you can choose what you think, how you feel and the way you react. This is not to say it is easy, but it is possible.
  2. Look for opportunities to practice. This detachment does not come naturally. While some of us are less easily aroused than others, learning to ignore a jerk’s goads usually requires some time and effort.
  3. Make this case to others. This is not a difficult case to make. Almost everyone will immediately agree that neutralizing difficult people in this way is theoretically possible.
  4. Ask for their commitment, patience and persistence. Understanding what can be done and what you need to do is not the problem. Doing it is.
  5. Celebrate any progress at all. This jerk-management technique is not a success-or-failure skill. It is an approach that works more effectively every time it is applied.

How have you observed leaders neutralize difficult people in the workplace?