How to Lead Difficult People Effectively

by Susan Mazza | Posted | Leadership

How to Lead Difficult People Effectively

We've all dealt with difficult people on the job. Think of a recent example. Was the situation handled well by your manager or other leaders?

The hard truth is that difficult people are a fact of life at work (and away from work, too, but that's a different story!). The ability to deal with someone who is being difficult in some way is essential to be an effective leader. Of course, "difficult" can take many forms such as being negative, a know-it-all or just plain lazy. Some people are difficult because they say yes to everything with good intentions, yet they fail to follow through. Perhaps the most difficult person of all to deal with, though, is the cynic-the person who wants something or someone to fail.

Ultimately what defines someone as difficult is the person with whom you have a hard time working with, communicating with, managing and/or leading. You and others can't depend on these difficult people: they give you grief, they get in the way or they cause distress. Ultimately the symptoms of dealing with a difficult person are that they are thwarting progress, disrupting harmony or decreasing satisfaction -and sometimes, it's all three. 

Regardless of the type of difficult person you face, there are two simple steps you can take to turn things around: clarify their commitments regarding the future and guide them to make a new choice in service of that future. 

Following are two common types of difficult people, the skeptic and the cynic. We'll show you how to apply two steps to effectively lead each of them.

Here's how to lead the skeptics and the cynics (and one of them is harder than the other!) @susanmazza
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The skeptic

Sometimes a person is difficult because they are afraid or they have had a past experience that made them resigned and negative about the future. These are the skeptics who often fixate on what won't work. You will encounter many people along the way who are skeptics-some in a healthy way and some not-so-healthy. 

1. Clarify their commitments to the future

Helping a skeptic to focus on what they want for the future vs. their fears, concerns or considerations based on their past can create an opening to have a conversation about what could work rather than what won't work.

If you have trouble dealing with skeptics, keep in mind that there are benefits to skepticism.  Skeptics will help you identify and foresee potential pitfalls and problems. It can be easier to hear what may seem "negative" once you are clear about their commitment regarding the future.

2. Guide them to choose for the future

When someone is skeptical, they usually don't see that they have a choice to be another way or look at the world any differently than they do. More importantly, they often don't see the negative impact their skepticism can have on others and the dynamic of their team. Rather than accuse them of being negative, which will likely shut them down and reinforce their skepticism, consider helping the skeptical employee to explore how they can leverage what they see to make a difference in the team's success. Essentially this is how you can begin to influence them to make a choice about what they express and how they express it without invalidating them in the process.

The cynic

A cynic has a vested interest in someone or something failing. They will do anything they can, overtly or covertly, to impede progress and prevent success. Sometimes it is because they have failed at something similar in the past and need to be right that "this" just can't be done because, after all, they already tried. Other times, it is because the cynic is angry with someone or a circumstance that they find themselves in and being cynical is how they survive their fear and disappointment. However, while the reasons for someone's cynicism may be more complex than either of these explanations address, cynics can be like a cancer eating away at progress and optimism in your organization. 

1. Clarify their commitments to the future

A conversation with a cynic about their commitment to the future can inform you as to whether they can be rehabilitated or are a lost cause. Your relationship with and commitment to the individual will factor into this determination because if you cannot authentically stand for someone, it will be difficult at best to transform their relationship with the future and their performance in the present.

Rarely will someone openly admit that they are really committed to the failure of themselves, the project or others. So it is important for you to listen for a match between what they say they are committed to and their behavior which leads us to the choice for you to offer.

2. Guide them to choose for the future

Whatever a cynic may say they are committed to, as a leader, it is up to you to point out the gap between their current behavior and performance and what you would see if they operated in line with their commitments. The choice to give them is typically to either stay with a commitment to making a substantive change or to pursue an opportunity elsewhere.

On a few occasions, I have seen someone when presented with this choice actually completely turn things around so while it may seem obvious that a cynic should just leave, giving them a clear choice puts the responsibility for their future completely in their hands. Be open to either choice.  If they choose to turn things around, however, be vigilant in holding them accountable for following through/

It is also important to note that when you actively work to cause positive change in your organization, the cynics often leave. This is because cynics thrive on people's unhappiness and their fears. Make things better and the cynic loses their power to achieve their destructive goals.

These are just two of the many variations on difficult people you may need to lead. Yet regardless of the type, consider that these two steps-clarifying commitment and guiding a choice-can be applied. 

Your turn: What other types of people do you find challenging to lead? How might you apply these two steps to cause a shift in their performance?

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