This morning when I Googled “how to manage difficult employees,” I got 54,400,000 results. Beyonce, by the way, got only 10,500,000. I know that the number of hits for any given search can vary dramatically from day to day (and I’ve done these searches multiple times). But still, I’m impressed by that spread! And it tells me that there’s clearly a lot of demand for resources on the topic of managing difficult people.
Here’s what’s interesting. The focus of most of these Google results is on the employee: who they are, what motivates them, what the manager should do in order to get them to behave differently. The focus is outward, on handling the other person.
I think that’s the wrong place to focus. I want to suggest that it’s actually not your job to manage other people, even difficult ones. I want you to consider that when you’re faced with “difficult” people, your primary job is not to focus outward, but to focus inward, and to effectively manage yourself, in three key areas.
Not long ago, I worked with a leader who was struggling in a new role. I’ll call him Roger. Roger had had years of success in previous positions – he was not an unseasoned leader – but despite that his new team was difficult for him. Roger complained that they didn’t follow through on decisions. They responded negatively to new initiatives. For their part, Roger’s team complained about his tendency to “sell” them on his ideas. People reported that he didn’t listen so well.
When we started working together, Roger had the same focus as many of those Google hits on managing difficult employees. He was focused outward, on getting his team to do what he wanted.
One of the first things we did was to shift his focus inward. I asked him to pay close attention to what he was actually doing in his interactions with his team. And when he looked closely, he began to see that people thought he was trying to sell them on his ideas because he actually WAS trying to sell them on his ideas. He discovered that underneath everything, he believed his ideas were the best, and that his job was to get other people to buy into them. It wasn’t working so well.
Once Roger had a clearer picture of what he was doing that wasn’t effective, we started working on developing his skills in focusing inward, and managing himself rather than managing others.
So, what exactly do I mean by managing yourself rather than managing others? I’m suggesting that to be successful in dealing with difficult people, there are three key areas in which you have to have the awareness and the skills to be effective. You have to be able to take clear stands, without either sugarcoating or steamrolling. You have to be able to stay genuinely connected to other people. And you have to be able to manage your own reactivity.
This is an essential part of leadership in general, and it means exactly what it says. Do you have a flag, and do you know where you’re planting it? Can you articulate your position clearly and directly? When it comes to dealing with difficult people, your stand might have to do with your expectations for how your team operates together, or your assessment of an individual team member’s performance. What matters is that people know what you think, why you think it, and what you want.
Roger knew what he stood for, and had clear positions about what he expected from his team, but he wasn’t actually taking those stands directly. Instead, he disguised his stands in leading questions, and his staff ended up feeling manipulated.
This is another critical skill in dealing with difficult people, because without it you can plant your flag wherever you like, but other person won’t be willing to stay engaged with you. “Staying connected” means being emotionally attuned to other people. When there’s conflict, people want to know that you get their experience, their view of the world. Not that you agree with it, necessarily, but that you get it. You care enough to ask, what do you think about this? How is this affecting you? And you stay open to the answers, even if they’re hard for you to hear.
This is not rocket science. I’ve shared these ideas about the importance of taking clear stands and staying connected with lots of leaders. Not one of them has ever said, “I don’t get it.” This is pretty simple stuff – in theory.
In actual practice, it can be the hardest stuff in the world! Most of the leaders I work with have challenges with either taking clear stands, or staying connected. Sometimes both.
Which brings us to the third key area in which you need to be able to manage yourself in order to deal effectively with difficult people, and that has to do with your own reactivity. Do you know what I’m talking about here? We all have triggers – certain situations, certain types of people – that tend to raise our anxiety or our blood pressure. In response, we react in habitual, not-so-skillful ways.
Vulnerability is a trigger, and I believe that there’s something about both taking clear stands and staying connected that taps into our sense of vulnerability. Consider that for a moment. If I clearly state what I think, why I think it, and what I want, I open myself to all kinds of potential risk. What if people don’t like what I say? What if somebody else is hurt or upset by my directness? What if I’m wrong?
Same with staying connected. The thing about staying connected is that it’s pretty easy to stay connected to people we like, when they agree with what we think. It’s much harder to stay open to people we don’t like so much, who disagree with us or cause us trouble. Truly staying connected means being open to being influenced by others, to having our views changed by what we hear, and when it’s coming from “difficult” people, there’s a certain vulnerability in being that open.
To protect ourselves from this sense of vulnerability, we fall back on our particular reactive patterns. Maybe we’re afraid of the reaction we’ll get, and so we sugarcoat our message in a tough conversation. Maybe when someone we don’t like says something challenging we get defensive, and keep explaining our position without really engaging with that person. Or maybe we give up our position altogether, and pretend to agree in order to smooth over a difficult situation.
I want to pause here and stress that these things are not trivial. How we react to challenging people and situations is rooted in our nervous systems, that fight/flight/freeze response that kicks in when our system feels threatened. And unless we’re able to manage that response effectively with some sort of centering practice, we can’t be clear about our stands or stay genuinely connected to others.
In Roger’s case, he learned that when he got frustrated with his team, he would begin to convince and cajole. That was his reactive pattern. As he practiced a simple centering exercise, he was able to pause when he noticed himself convincing, and physically re-center himself. Then, he could calmly and clearly take his stand, and be curious enough to stay connected.
Toward the end of our work together, he said to me, “Now all the time I hear myself saying, ‘This is where I stand on this,’ and ‘what do you think?’” Not surprisingly, he was getting better results, and his team was no longer so “difficult”.
When you’re dealing with difficult people, these action steps can help you stay focused on managing yourself rather than the other person.
1. Find a simple centering exercise you can practice to manage your reactivity. A good centering practice will do two things: 1) it will help you see more clearly your patterns when you’re triggered, and 2) it will help you physically soothe your nervous system when you’re triggered so that you can be more thoughtful about the actions you take. You can find one example of a centering exercise here, but the key is to find something that works for you that you will practice regularly.
2. Get clear about what you want. When you are faced with a difficult person or challenging situation, ask yourself: what is my stand in this situation? What do I want? What’s non-negotiable, and where am I willing to compromise?
3. Assess yourself honestly. Once you’re clear about your stand, really assess whether you’re communicating that stand directly. Is there some way you’re sugarcoating your message, even just a little bit? Practice making clear, simple statements, without any extra words.
4. Stay connected. Make a list of all the things you don’t know about the other person’s experience of the situation. Identify questions you can ask to help you understand. Then, when you’re asking those questions, make sure you paraphrase what you hear the other person saying. (Remember, understanding and acknowledging someone else’s experience doesn’t mean you agree with them.)
What about you? What have you found effective in managing difficult people? What happens when you focus on managing yourself, rather than managing them? I’d love to hear your comments!