By Elisabeth Goodman, 18th March 2021
My work involves working with managers, and working with team members. The questions they ask are often mirror reflections of each other: how do I work with a difficult team member? How do I work with a difficult manager?
Some possible answers that we explore in our coaching and training are listed in this illustration.
There was an article a few years ago relating to when the difficult person is a boss that I wrote up as a blog (Goodman, 2016). There’s another excellent one in the current issue of Harvard Business Review (Grant, 2021) that gives a number of options for more extreme situations, based on people’s experiences of working with Steve Jobs.
I shrink from directly referencing scenarios that draw on what seem like negative depictions of someone I did not know. However the actual lessons can be generalised and seem valuable enough to share and reflect about here.
Start from the premise that the more diverse the opinions, the more successful a leader will be
Julia Hoggett, currently Director, Market Oversight Division at the Financial Conduct Authority, and soon to be CEO of the London Stock Exchange, gave an inspiring talk on Diversity and Inclusion at the recent Rising Festival. One of her comments that stayed with me was the importance, as a leader, of surrounding yourself with people who think differently to you, and who will, as a consequence, stretch your comfort zone in the opinions and questions that they ask you to consider.
It may be worth, if you find yourself as a team member faced with a manager or leader who is apparently not receptive to different points of view, reminding yourself that it’s worth persevering – for the benefit of the team, the organisation, and also for you own sense of value and worth.
Needless to say, a manager or leader will be less likely to hesitate about the value of persevering with a direct report who is not receptive to alternative points of view.
In both cases, it’s useful to have a few strategies at your disposal. Here are some that I’ve evolved from Grant’s article.
Ask the ‘intransigent’ person to explain how they believe something (that you disagree with) will work
Our intention is of course positive. We want to listen to and understand their point of view. We’re curious. That can be flattering for the person we’re seeking to influence.
But the expression ‘digging a hole’ for themselves might be apt. The more someone seeks to explain something that they have insufficient knowledge about, or that is flawed in some way, the more this will become obvious.
And so the opportunity may then more easily present itself for you to offer help to ‘fill in that hole’. Or they may even ask “What would you do / say in this situation?”
Let the ‘stubborn’ person have control
Some people have a stronger drive to have control over situations than others. If you go straight into ‘telling’ mode with them, they may get defensive, and even do the exact opposite of what you ask them to do.
We know, as coaches, that people are more likely to change their behaviours if they’ve chosen the change they want to make and when and how they will do it.
So this is the ‘ask not tell’ approach again. As Grant says: questions like “what if..?” and “could we..?” might prompt the other person’s curiosity and willingness to consider other possibilities. They may not do so straight-away, but they might think about it and even surprise you by offering alternatives as their own idea! It will be their choice to do so. They will still be in control.
Consider starting with praise!
Hopefully you won’t be dealing with bullies or narcissists but whether you are or not, everyone likes to be liked. Expressing some as close to genuine positive feedback or affirmation for someone is likely to make them more receptive to some challenging remark.
As Grant says, it’s important to give praise in an area that’s different to the one you are seeking to influence. So you might for instance praise a leader for the quality of their strategic thinking, and then suggest that they take suggestions for day-to-day operational management. With luck they might acknowledge that the latter is not a forté of theirs. It’s worth a try!
Be prepared to get involved in an “energetic” debate
Some so called “difficult” people actually enjoy arguments and conflict, and are disappointed when other people don’t rise to the challenge. So, marshall your facts, prepare your arguments, and get ready to defend your position. You may well find that you earn the other person’s respect in the process.
These influencing strategies are not for the faint-hearted. Nor is there any guarantee that they will work. But, according to Grant, they are worth a try. I would be fascinated to hear from any readers who do try them, or who have seen others use them and what results they have had.
Goodman, E. (2016). What to do when the difficult person is your boss? Retrieved from https://elisabethgoodman.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/what-to-do-when-the-difficult-person-is-your-boss/
Grant, A. (2021). Persuading the unpersuadable. Lessons from science – and the people who were able to sway Steve Jobs. Harvard Business Review, March – April, 131-135
About the author
Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, through coaching, courses and workshops, and with a focus on the Life Sciences. RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus.
Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting teams on a global basis.
She is developing her coaching practice, with a focus on helping individuals to exercise choice and realise their potential in the workplace by enhancing their leadership / management, interpersonal and communication skills, and their ability to deal with uncertainty and change.
Elisabeth is accredited in Coaching (ACC – International Coaching Federation, PG Certification in Business and Personal Coaching), Change Management, Lean Sigma, Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is also a member of the APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.
Elisabeth is also the founder of The Coaches’ Forum – an international community of interest for coaches to explore ideas and insights as an extension to their personal and professional development.