‘Managing Difficult People’ Category


Difficult People: Fire Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Except in egregious situations, this is always the last resort. Of course, leaders are hesitant to do this. They should be. It means the organization’s recruitment and retention processes have failed. The confrontation is unpleasant. Difficult people usually believe they were justified in behaving the way they did, and they will go to their graves convinced that their firing was unjust. As for the courageous leader who fired them, they will hate her guts forever. And these resentful people always seem to be getting their groceries at the same time as the leader who finally stood up to them. When Clare Booth Luce and Oscar Wilde (attributed) said “No good deed goes unpunished,” this is what they meant.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Sometimes it just has to be done. Bitter, miserable people are poison and their affecting droppings pollute the entire workplace. If you avoid dealing decisively with this obvious contagion, you will forfeit your own credibility. Those who are struggling to remain positive will give up on you and choose a more determined leader in another company. You may mistakenly think you cannot afford to lose this difficult employee. Actually, you cannot afford not to.

How can you do it?

  1. Make sure you have made your expectations clear. People have a right to know which behaviors are unacceptable and they deserve a chance to straighten up. It’s the fair thing to do.
  2. Warn them that failure to change will result in their termination. Don’t beat around the bush about this. Put it in writing.
  3. Give the deviant a reasonable chance to turn herself around. Don’t make the mistake of promising to reevaluate the situation after 90 days. Anyone can act better for 90 days. Make it clear that the disruptive behavior must disappear forever.
  4. Send them home immediately. Don’t allow them to work out a notice and cause more havoc. Be done with it now. Pay them for their two-week notice. This will be one of the best investments in your colleagues you will ever make.

How have you successfully removed a difficult person from the workplace?

Difficult People: Punish Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

It’s uncomfortable. Leaders are just like everyone else. Above all, they long for comfort. No one puts her bare feet on the floor in the morning looking forward to the opportunity to confront a difficult person later that day. A significant amount of preparation is required. Evidence must be collected. Most leaders will need to make notes, consult the right people and make a practice run with a trusted colleague. All of this takes time and energy that might be more pleasurably invested in attending meaningless meetings or reading spam.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

The best leaders will trade comfort for results every time. When you’ve used all the subtle tools to no avail, this is the hammer you must reach for. It is time for some serious corrective action. The positive people you serve expect you to do your duty. Your failure to punish an ongoing pattern of misconduct will transform difficult behavior from “The Problem” to your problem.

How can you do it?

  1. Begin creating and collecting documentation. Many leaders make the mistake of having subtle, informal conversations far too long. Document every confrontation you have with difficult people even if you keep that evidence only in your personal files. It may come in handy later.
  2. Document complaints. This is not as easy as it sounds. Many colleagues will come in to whine but refuse to go on the record. Don’t fall for that. Take notes while they talk. As soon as they leave, send them an email documenting what that said. Copy a fellow leader. Make the complainers admit they were lying or take responsibility for what they said.
  3. Prepare a letter specifying exactly what behavior must change. Use this letter as the agenda for your confrontation. Don’t argue or allow yourself to be distracted by discussing their reasons why they behave the way they do.
  4. Clarify what will happen if they persist in behaving this way. Don’t beat around the bush. “If these inappropriate behaviors recur, I will take the appropriate administrative action up to and including dismissing you from this position.”

How do you punish the difficult people in your workplace appropriately?

Difficult People: Isolate Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

It hurts their feelings. And many leaders are hesitant to hurt anyone’s feelings—even those whose feelings should be hurt. Those who are isolated because of their bad behavior will scream that they are being treated unfairly. This will force the courageous leader to admit that is true and to explain why. This management strategy may shift some of the troublemaker’s work to others and those so affected may resent that. Those who have already raised children will recognize that no punishment goes unpunished.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Managers must attach unpleasant consequences to a pattern of bad behavior. It is true that positive reinforcement usually works better, but it is not enough with difficult people. They will mistakenly conclude that you appreciate their troublemaking too. And they will be more inclined to engage in more of it. More importantly these bad apples spoil whatever bunch they are in. The workgroups infested with their rot will appreciate your seclusion of these offensive troublemakers and their disgusting smells.

How can you do it?

  1. Don’t forget this option. This is not the first option that will come to your mind. If you don’t keep a list of options for dealing with difficult people nearby, you may not think of this possibility.
  2. Remove them from the teams they have infected. This will not stop them from causing trouble, but it will prevent them from destroying the group’s momentum.
  3. Stop seeking their consent or consultation. Inform them instead. It’s true that difficult people have a good idea now and then, but their good ideas are few and far between.
  4. Explain why you are doing this. Weak or inexperienced managers just quietly do this without explaining their actions. It’s better than doing nothing, but it is much less effective than the quiet, in-your-face approach.

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

Difficult People: Ridicule Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Humor has an edge. It can cut. Because of this, leaders are ordinarily careful about saying or doing anything that might be perceived as intentionally critical in public. Even those who freely criticize their colleagues at work resent it when they become the butt of the joke themselves. Leaders are rightly hesitant to use the ridicule tool.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

But gentle sarcasm has its place. When the leader observes that a difficult colleague is “always so positive, supportive and easy to live with,” those who have to tolerate these grating personalities know that they are not alone. This admission legitimizes their perceptions and gives them public credit for their longsuffering.

How can you do it?

  1. Use humor to defuse their anger. “Are you actually angry about this insignificant issue or are you just putting us on?”
  2. Poke fun at their chronic complaining. “I see that you have found another of life’s imperfections to share with us.”
  3. Ridicule their negativity and cynicism. “I’m surprised by your perception; you are usually so positive and upbeat.”

How have you successfully used humor to manage the difficult people in your life?

Difficult People: Discourage Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Leaders are programmed to respond to squeaky wheels. That’s what they’ve watched their managers do. Workplace squealing annoys everyone. People expect leaders to make it stop. Leaders with servant hearts—and the best leaders always have these hearts—long to serve even the difficult customers. They view trouble as an opportunity. And nice people find it hard not to be nice, even when being nice is not the best approach.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

The problem with responding promptly and sincerely to difficult people is that it encourages more of the same difficult behavior. Even when they don’t get their way, obnoxious people get the attention they crave. When you figure this out, you will realize you must find a variety of effective ways to negatively reinforce bad behavior. This notion will make you uncomfortable. Following through on your plans will make you even more so. Do it anyway.

How can you do it?

  1. Refuse to listen to ranting. When someone calls you screaming, interrupt them. Tell them you will listen to them when they can conduct themselves in accordance with your organization’s Code of Conduct. Then end the call. Don’t worry. They will call back.
  2. Conduct an investigation. Don’t take their word for it. Get the facts. You will usually find the complainers have distorted the truth or sowed disinformation hoping to reap the discord that will serve their purposes.
  3. Make your findings public. This will document their unsavory character, expose their methods and attach unexpected and unpleasant consequences. This will discourage them.
  4. Discriminate against them. Focus your time and attention on the people who show up on time, produce results without complaining and never break a sweat over the small stuff.

How have you successfully discouraged difficult people in your organization?

Difficult People: Learn from Them

Kendall L. Stewart, MD, MBA, DLFAPA

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

It is hard to take these folks seriously. They make mountains out of molehills. They are crabby. They always suspect the worst of others and harp on every flaw. They only believe the bad news and gleefully pass it on. They suck the joy out of every room they enter. What could any leader learn from such people?

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Consider this. You can learn a great deal. You can learn exactly what you are up against. With their help you can identify every weakness in your case. This valuable insight will permit you to build a more compelling case. From the difficult people you will learn what others are thinking but unwilling to say. Address these concerns up front, and you will eliminate much of the opposition. Most powerful of all, you can learn what a tragedy it is to be so miserable when life is so short and thank God for your relative good fortune. You could have turned out like them.

How can you do it?

  1. Focus on what they say. Ignore how they say it. Critics make points that must be answered. They just make these points in ways that disincline serious people to bother.
  2. Admit it when they are right. Most leadership decisions are not clear cut. There is always the risk of mistake or failure. When these people point out everything that might go wrong, thank them for contributing the risk assessment piece. And mean it.
  3. Repeat the points they’ve raised. Acknowledge that these issues need to be considered. Rebut them effectively.
  4. Follow your rebuttal with a summary of the pros and cons of the issue at hand. Admit that your case is not air tight while pointing out that you believe, on balance, your case is compelling.
  5. Always conclude by thanking your critics for speaking their minds. You can deal with people who speak up even when they are unpleasant. Silent critics are much tougher.

What have you learned from the difficult people in your life?

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?