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?

Difficult People: Understand Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

There are two compelling reasons why leaders have little interest in understanding difficult people. First, they know that why a jerk behaves the way she does is not germane. It’s the behavior that matters. Secondly, they are fearful that once they start to explain why the bully behaves the way he does, victims will conclude that they must excuse the jerk’s behavior. Leaders’ concerns are justified. In the case of bad behavior, what matters a great deal more than why.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

But inquiring minds want to know. Here you have adults behaving in ways that disrupt the workplace and incline most of their colleagues to resent and avoid them. Why on earth would they behave so stupidly? Why would they keep it up when it impairs their effectiveness and damages their careers? People will keep on asking why until you explain. So go ahead and explain.

How can you do it?

  1. Accept the fact that people want to understand. Never mind that they don’t really need to understand to deal effectively with others’ problematic behaviors. Ignore your misgivings that explanations may distract others from the real issue—the bad behavior itself. It is natural to ask why. People usually cannot move on until they understand.
  2. Remind people that we all behave the way we do because of the way we think and feel. People who think they are better than others feel they deserve to be treated differently. When they are frustrated they feel entitled to behave badly.
  3. They have learned how to behave from poor role models. Take a closer look at any jerk’s background. You will find influential jerks there.
  4. They may not know any better. Let’s be honest. A fair number of these people are just ignorant. They don’t get it. They don’t realize that their boorish behavior is making their lives harder.
  5. They are lazy and lack self-discipline. They may know how to act but they are not willing to exercise the self-control that is required.
  6. After you have explained why jerks behave the way they do, remember to explain that it doesn’t matter. It’s the behavior—not the explanation for it—that matters.

How have your explanations of why difficult people behave the way they do enabled you to manage them better?

Difficult People: Observe Your Reactions

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

It happens thousands of times each day. We think. We feel. We react. We do these things robotically without consciously realizing what we’ve just done. Observing our own reactions demands considerable effort and sustained attention. Such self-awareness and monitoring doesn’t come naturally to most of us. This process of observing our reactions also holds us accountable for them. It is much easier to blame others for the ways we think, feel and behave. “You made me mad and that’s why I said that.”

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Here’s the deal. You can’t hold difficult people accountable for their reactions to stressful situations unless you are willing to hold yourself accountable for yours first. You won’t accept accountability for your reactions to others until you recognize what you did and acknowledge that you did it. No one made you react that way. You chose to react that way based on what you believed and how you felt. Your willingness to observe your own reactions, to take full responsibility for them and to analyze the beliefs and feelings that triggered them is one of the key foundations for successful leadership.

How can you do it?

  1. What happened? When a difficult person crosses your path and unpleasantness ensues, make a brief note of your interaction. Stick to observed behaviors during this part of your analysis.
  2. How did you feel? If you wait too long to reflect on this, you will forget exactly how you felt. You may have felt several different things. Jot down the feelings that you recall.
  3. What did you believe? We feel certain ways because we believe certain things. Here’s an example. I may believe that civilized people should not throw trash out of their cars. Because I believe that, when I observe people littering, I feel annoyed.
  4. What did I do? Here’s where you get to describe your own behavioral response to your feelings and beliefs. Your reactions when you are aroused are instinctual and they follow predictable patterns. Now you are gaining insight into your own personality.
  5. What might I have done? This bonus question is the real payoff. Here you are free to reflect on what behavior might have worked better in that situation. By now, you have realized that this simple self-analysis is exactly what difficult people fail to do in their routine interactions with others.

How have you successfully observed your own behavior and modified it as a result?

Difficult People: Identify Your Feelings

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

We all have feelings. They just appear. We tend to take them for granted and view them as legitimate even when they are not. Worse still, we usually act on them unquestioningly. This tendency to react to our feelings immediately and uncritically is why feelings are so disruptive in human affairs. Most of us don’t even recognize our feelings until we’ve reacted in a way we’ve come to regret.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Effective leaders know how important their feelings are. They monitor them continuously and they refuse to be held hostage by them. They fully understand they cannot manage others’ feelings until they manage their own. And they realize that the difficult people they work with cause mischief mostly by arousing others in the workplace.

How can you do it?

  1. Accept the importance of monitoring your own feelings. If you are not convinced by the case I’ve made, consult the most successful leaders in your organization. They will urge you to practice your emotional intelligence skills.
  2. Adopt a mental process for monitoring your feelings continuously. Check your own emotional vital signs periodically during the day. A little simple self talk will work wonders. “I’m currently feeling (feeling).” “I’m feeling that way because I’m thinking (current thoughts).” “Because of what I’m thinking and feeling, I’m inclined to (behave in this way).” If you practice this simple mental discipline regularly, your workplace will be a lot less chaotic and emotionally draining.
  3. Pay particular attention to your own emotional arousal. Some of us are more easily aroused than others, but it happens to us all. Recognize it immediately. Your arousal is not the biggest challenge. What you do with it is. But you can’t manage it if you don’t recognize it.
  4. Identify, express and accept your feelings. As a leader, you will want to do this offstage. Go to a trusted colleague’s office and talk it out briefly. Until you can do this, keep your mouth shut.

How do you routinely identify your feelings?

Difficult People: Face Reality

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

No one wants to deal with difficult people. Because of this natural aversion, most leaders hope they can just ignore the problem and it will eventually go away. When that fails, they decide to get rid of all of the difficult people and never hire any more of them. These expectations are unrealistic. Leaders will always have to deal with difficult people. The sooner we recognize that and manage them effectively the better off everyone will be.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

When you face the painful reality that dealing with difficult people is inescapable and an everyday challenge, you will be less inclined to avoid the problem. You will see that your procrastination is undermining everything else you are trying to accomplish. It’s not that avoidance is never appropriate with these folk. It is sometimes the best approach in the short term. But you must not choose that option just because it is easiest.

How can you do it?

  1. Identify the difficult people in your life. A good number of them will come to mind right away. When you consider how many there are and where they are, you will realize that you cannot expunge them from your life entirely. You will see that you only have two choices: you will manage them or they will manage you.
  2. Talk to your fellow leaders. They will reinforce the reality that these challenging folk cannot be avoided.
  3. Reflect on your own experience. You worked with difficult people before you became a leader. What impact did they have on the work environment? How did you and others feel about the manager who repeatedly failed to identify those problems and deal with them? What impact did the manager who held these folk accountable have?

How have you faced up to the reality that you will always have to deal with difficult people?

Managing Difficult People: The Leadership Challenge

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

They are everywhere. They contaminate schools, families and places of worship. They poison the work environment of every company. These are the difficult people. They whine and complain. They criticize. They get their feelings hurt. They are thin-skinned. They gossip and stir the pot. They care deeply about everything—except the things that matter. And they don’t realize they are difficult. They think their feelings are justified and they believe their opinions are valuable; they feel duty bound to share their critical perspectives with others.

Difficult people are the bane of your existence as a leader. Their coworkers dread being around them, and you will dread having to confront them. Try as you might, you will not be able to eliminate negative people from the workplace; you can minimize their numbers, but you cannot entirely eliminate them. There are just too many difficult people in the world. They are some of the hardest working people you will ever find. They often have skills you cannot do without. Even though they are negative, you will often conclude that they are net-positive for your organization.

But you are not helpless. There are things you can do to manage difficult people better. You can minimize their pernicious influence and contain their emotional bile. The blog entries that follow will lay out some of those strategies. First, I will explain why leaders are hesitant to employ these approaches. Second, I will explain why you should do these things anyway. Third, I will tell you exactly how to do it. Finally, I will invite you to share your own practical experiences in dealing with the difficult people in your work environment. We have all learned some tricks for managing difficult people over the years. Please share your questions and insights with your fellow leaders who are facing the same challenges.