"Everyone has met the most difficult person in the world before. Except they don’t look in the mirror.”
- Abiodun Fijabi
In working with business owners over the last 20 plus years there are numerous instances where people have been labelled ‘difficult’. My natural curiosity leads me to immediately pose two initial questions.
- Are they being truly difficult, or could it be our perceptions of their behaviour and/or could I, or others, be part of the problem?
- If they are being truly difficult, what could the causes be, and how might we turn those undesirable behaviours around?
A problem exists when we stereotype people into archetypes and look no further in terms of potential solutions. ‘That’s just who they are’ type of thinking; case closed!
Now, that may very well be true, but equally so we might discover it’s not the case. There may be numerous reasons leading to this stereotyping and if we are being fair and respectful, we should look beyond the symptoms.
Here are a few examples of why difficult people may be perceived that way:
- They may disagree with what is being said or proposed and have a different point of view.
- They may not mix and socialise in the same way as others and getting to know them takes more time.
- They present their views in a different format, tone, or approach that some people may not like.
- They may at times be opinionated and singular in their view on business ideas and concepts in general.
On the other hand, a genuinely difficult person may be exhibiting some of the following characteristics.
- They are simply hard to get along with and are disagreeable with a constant negative attitude.
- They do not assess or care about the impact that their behaviour has on others.
- They do not support or embrace the company goals, culture & values.
*I am going to add a comment here about people who are on the autism spectrum and may certainly be labelled as difficult to deal with. The management of people like that is beyond the scope of this article but successfully dealing with them requires a deal of sensitivity, understanding and experience.
Turning a difficult person around
The question is, can a genuinely difficult person be turned around? That’s a hard question to universally answer as it varies on a case-by-case basis. The starting point is not to ignore but have open and honest conversations with this person to determine the answers to questions like the following:
- Is this is a problem than can be solved via the forum of a series of structured coaching conversations?
- Can we be open, honest, and authentic with each other?
- Is there goodwill on both sides to work towards win/win outcomes?
- Can we acknowledge when and where we may need specialist help to work through more difficult and potentially sensitive subject matter?
- Does this person care enough about, and want to remain with this company?
Other questions may emerge from the flow of conversation, and that’s important, allowing that free and honest flow of feedback and ideas.
My starting position is to try and understand why this so called ‘difficult person’ is identified that way to see if we can find a solution that satisfies the needs of the business owner, their workmates, and the person themselves.
Redeeming features of difficult people
On the upside, so called difficult people can have redeeming features which is another reason to work towards achieving amicable outcomes. In my experience some of those attributes include:
- These people can get things done and often have a bias for action and achieving results. They may get frustrated with mediocrity, which on balance I think is a good thing.
- Because they can challenge the status quo, that can promote fresh thinking and innovation. And, in todays’ constantly evolving world, that’s a good thing.
- Difficult people can have emotional hot buttons which when modulated in the right direction can provide a different form of energy the business needs.
However, and finally, if you have a truly difficult person that shows no willingness to change when its acknowledge and required, then retaining them as an ongoing part of the team is going to be a challenge.
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