In my last post, I described seven types of difficult people I’ve encountered since leaving academia. Here, I’ll talk about how I deal with those people.
In a previous role, I managed a staff of 15 people. While my staff was generally fantastic, I spent a lot of time addressing personnel issues. Mostly I had to deal with how a particular client base addressed my people, but I had a few “snowflakes” on my staff as well. So I’ve been in a manager’s shoes and I’ve been on the other side, dealing with difficult managers.
Full disclosure – I am ridiculously Type A. And as I get older, I get more and more Type A, putting me squarely in the Type A++ category, almost bordering on neurotic. When I was younger, I expected the same level of competency, passion, and attention to detail from everyone around me.
And that is a mistake. I learned that the hard way. In order to improve my own behavior, I’ve come to realize that I can only do so much, and there are things out of my control. Does this cause me anxiety? Yes, it does. But I’m a work in progress. I now expect of a person only what I think (s)he is capable of and willing to give.
So, how do I deal with the seven banes of my existence?
1. The Daeva, a noxious creatures that promote chaos and disorder through behavior consistent with the belief that one is the self-proclaimed god(dess) of a particular institution or company. This one’s a toughie. Daeva’s can be quite sensitive, and prone to festering. I feed a Daeva’s ego. To an extent. It sounds counter-intuitive. After all, won’t this promote the bad behavior? Maybe. But I also make sure that (s)he is aware of the realities of the situation that we happen to find ourselves in. Daeva’s have a myopic and self-interested view of the world. I find that if you make them aware of the larger picture, they’ll take it in, digest it, and maybe even realize that the situation is more complicated than (s)he thinks. So, feed the beast, but establish ground rules.
2. The Petulant Child – (S)he just cannot admit that (s)he might be wrong, and is prone to tantrums. Often I just give in, especially if I’m dealing with someone higher in the food chain. I state my case clearly, provide appropriate support and justification, and sometimes I do so multiple times. If I’m at the top of the food chain, I take the opportunity to explain to the “Child” why I chose the path that I did, and welcome additional dialogue. Sometimes it ends up being a learning experience for us both. And sometimes it’s a disaster. But you can’t win them all…
3. The Powerful Powerless, a perfect storm. I’ve often found this archetype at the co-worker level, as this person tends not to show his/her true colors to superiors, and often does not have subordinates. Unfortunately, the PP just cannot be reasoned with, unless (s)he sees some personal benefit. This person is actually inherently weak of character, and sometimes a polite confrontation is successful. However I have found that if that fails, my best option has been to include the PP’s direct manager in a discussion. Sometimes that discussion involves the PP, sometimes it doesn’t. This often results in a temporary fix, but almost never permanent. And the cycle begins again.
4. The Self-Indulgent, Spoiled Brat – I find that the difference between the Brat and the Daeva is often in technical competency. The Daeva draws its “high and mighty” attitude from a pedestal of knowledge and credentials. The Brat does not. So I often find this archetype farther down the food chain. Dealing with the Brat is difficult. I approach it with a combination of a firm stance and “letting it go.” I ensure that the Brat understands his/her place in the hierarchy. But because a Brat is difficult to manage, oftentimes I find it easier to avoid giving a Brat too much ownership of any particular project. Sometimes it’s helpful to set up an improvement plan, but sometimes even that is fruitless.
5. The “Squirrel!” – This one’s a little easier. Having a discussion with this person, and maybe even setting up a project management plan and timeline is helpful. But you have to be persistent in following up with a Squirrel. I also find that it’s easier to frame the approach in a way that the squirrel believes (s)he is doing this for my own personal benefit. This helps to establish an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” relationship, while ensuring that all tasks get completed.
6. The Omnicient – While frustrating, this one’s easy too. I always plan my approach in such a way that the “O” thinks that any good idea I might have actually came from him/her. It achieves the end-goal. And when working in a team environment, sometimes it’s easier to forego praise in order to get the job done.
7. The Conjoined Twin. It’s hard to believe that one person could embody more than one of these archetypes. But I’ve seen it. I had a manager who was Daeva and Petulant Child. I had an employee who was Spoiled Brat and an Omniscient. (Boy, that was a treat!) I had a co-worker who was a Squirrel and a Daeva. This is by far the most difficult conjoined archetype I’ve encountered. It takes patience, and a lot of it.
In dealing with difficult people, I’ve found that a good general rule of thumb is to “Live to Fight Another Day.” I’m not saying that you have to concede. I am certainly not one to give up or let people walk all over me. In fact, I’m can be quite fiery, or so I’ve been told. But personnel and relationship management is difficult. Learning to do it skillfully will benefit you in the long run. Understanding your position, his/her position, and the context is extremely important. Also understanding the hierarchy and the chain of command of your organization is important. Jumping the chain of command is almost never a good idea.
Finally, I suggest that you don’t bring it home with you. But do bring it to the gym or the football field – it can be a great motivator!