We've all had to deal with them. Perhaps you still are dealing with them? How do we get better at Leading Difficult People?

They come in all shapes and sizes. All races, all genders, and all backgrounds. They only share two things in common, but I'll come back to that in a little while.

As a professional executive coach I occasionally get asked by organisation leaders if I can help them “fix” one of their more “difficult” or “problematic” team members. They see potential in this person but there's a problem in their style or approach that needs developing.

Leading someone who is bringing everyone down takes its toll on leaders

Some of them are like Debbie Downer from Saturday Night Live: Always ready with a depressing take on everything being discussed. Some people only seem to be happy when they're unhappy and bringing everyone else down with them to the pit of despair. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfE93xON8jk

leading difficult people is not always about the obvious
Some people are just plain bad tempered

Other jerks seem to get a kick out of creating problems for everyone else and pushing people's buttons. Needling away on their pet topic and with a keen eye for any signs of weakness in others.

Some people are bullies, intentionally or not

Then we have the bullies. Instead of pushing people's metaphorical buttons, they seem to get off on literally pushing people around, shouting the loudest, forcing others to do things they don't want to and worse.

Timid people are often the most difficult to lead.

At least with the downers, the jerks and the bullies everyone knows who they are. But some of the most difficult people to lead are the timid and frightened. They can be so fearful of confrontation and conflict that they hide and disappear just when you need them.

Or perhaps you have someone on your team who is so disorganised and yet desperate to succeed and never seems to make any headway?

And then there's those who sit back and criticise everything and everyone else and never ever take ownership or accountability

And then we have the cynics and scoffers who undermine everything with their often sarcastic wit and pointed barbs. Or perhaps your most difficult person is the gossip who spread rumours, half-truths and juicy tid-bits in hushed tones over “team lunches” turning everyone against you whilst to your face, oh they're as sweet as honey and in front of the boss… well you have to admire their front and acting skills.

Yes, they come in all shapes and sizes, races, genders and from all backgrounds and they share two things in common: The first important thing they all have in common is that they are all “people”. We are dealing here with human beings. And we know from neuroscience that human beings share very much more in common in what drives them and causes these behaviours.

The second thing they have in common is you.

If you're reading or listening to this, then you are likely having problems leading difficult people in your life whom you find difficult, and you want to know how to lead them or simply deal with them.

It's OK, you are in the right place. Before we head into the “how”, we need a few moments to understand what is happening with these people. And for that we'll be turning to a little neuroscience.

I recently read a terrific book by Christine Comaford: “Power Your Tribe“. She also writes for Forbes and has built on Abram Maslow's hierarchy of needs showing the neurological drivers all humans share. And it's primal.

Your brain knows two states that matter: Dead and not-dead.

Your brain's primary job is to keep you in the “not dead” state. And you really don't care about leading difficult people when you are “dead”.

To keep you in the “not dead” state, your brain guides your body to satisfy your physiological needs first and foremost. You have to eat, drink, find shelter, and stay warm (or cool). If any of that is threatened by anyone or anything, your brain will guide you to protect it before “not dead” becomes “dead”.

Now that you are in the “not dead” state we have three more primal drivers of our behaviours: Safety, Belonging and Mattering.

Only when these three are also satisfied to our brain's content do we consider “self-actualization” and doing things beyond the norm for ourselves.

And we crave these three things: Safety, Belonging and Mattering. Some people may crave more of one than the others, but we all crave all three to a certain extent.

Do I feel safe?

Can I take risks, is it OK for me to try certain things? Will I be fired if I make a mistake (thus threatening my physiological needs)? If I try something new, is that OK? If I speak up, will I be cut down? Am I free from fear, worry and anxiety?

Do I belong?

Are these people my people? Are we all going in the same direction? Are we equal (or at least equitable)? Do these people care for me? Will they look out for me and watch my back? Do I care for them? Will I go the extra mile for anyone of them? Do we love each other? Do we work across boundaries freely and equitably? Do silos exist? Do some people hold information or power as a means of control? Am I part of a tribe?

Do I matter?

Does what I do matter in the team? In the world? In life? Do I know that I matter? Do people tell me that I matter, or what I do matters? Does my contribution count and does it count as much as others contributions? Am I recognised for what I do? Have I mastered what i need to master to achieve what I am supposed to achieve? Am I able to do this? Am I respected for my achievements?

And all of these needs and questions begin unconsciously. That is, any threats to them are perceived by your brain (often through your Anterior Cingulate Cortex which is always on the lookout for anything unknown or new). Once a threat is perceived, a particular mix of electro-chemical signals are fired off and your body responds. Christine Comaford calls this your “Critter State”. There was a trigger and you have responded to that trigger. You might not even know that you have responded to a trigger. Other people will know it, but you may be completely oblivious to it.

Having trouble leading difficult people might indicate something important about the leader

One senior leader I was asked to coach would criticise team members publically and regularly.

The slightest delay or mistake with a task would result in her berating the individual loudly and with unflattering language. Her team were terrified of making a mistake or failing to deliver on time – and even when they did everything right, they received a barrage of sarcastic comments. The team, unsurprisingly, was not performing well and her boss told me she was having problems leading difficult people and asked me in to “fix the problem”.

As it turned out, this leader considered herself to be a perfectionist and hated “sloppy work” and sure it was something evolved from her family background but more important, she felt “unrespected” and was “deeply concerned that she would not achieve her KPIs because the team was sloppy”.

Her self-esteem was taking a hit and she believed that if she was nicer to the team, more respectful and more supportive that they would take advantage of her and she didn't matter enough to the senior leaders to keep and support. She essentially believed that she didn't matter enough and her critter state response was to lash out at anyone and everyone who happened to raise their head above the parapet.

There are times when I lose my temper.

I know, shocking revelation, but there it is, I too am flawed. My voice raises towards a shout, I get agitated and I may say things that I really regret later. Most often it's when I am interrupted when I am in a flow state. For example, I could be writing this, in a flow, the words just tumbling out and my thoughts racing ahead, and my wife interrupts me to asks me for help with something.

At first I ignore her request, rushing to close the sentence or thought or make enough notes so that I don't lose track of where I was heading. Knowing full well, that any second now, I will be interrupted again with the same request. Only this time it's more urgent. Though it's not urgent in real terms and what I am doing is much, much more important and can't it wait. I snap back. One more request and I snap again. My hackles rise, my blood pressure heads upward, my heart beat too. I shove my stool backwards and stomp through to the other room.

Sometimes, I catch myself and breathe a moment and choose to calm my critter and deliberately welcome the interruption and lovingly address my beloved and willingly, pleasantly tender my assistance. Other times, I fail to catch myself and my beloved gets my critter glare and my critter comments. My Safety and Mattering were momentarily compromised.

Of course, you are a far better human being than I am and never ever show your critter state.

Your need to feel safe, to belong and to matter differ from mine.

My triggers and yours are probably different, though many things we will share because we do already have some tribal connection.

We all want safety, belonging and mattering. And those “difficult” people. They're just showing you something of their “critter” state. Their behaviour is the result of the hijack of their emotions caused by a trigger that they perceived and they are responding in the only way they know how to protect what is important for them: their safety, their belonging and/ or their mattering.

And that threat to them is perceived which makes it real for them.

Although it is almost certainly unconscious. That is, they are not consciously aware that they are responding to a trigger.

One very common trigger that causes many (otherwise sweet, kind and gentle people) people to respond less than maturely (aka like a total mad angry thing) is whilst driving and someone cuts you in a traffic jam, or suddenly turns without indicating. You perceived that your safety was compromised and somehow, leaning on the horn, accelerating, and many far worse responses were deemed appropriate by your inner critter.

Remember that our brains are continuously on the lookout for any perceived threats. Once perceived, the electrochemical response has been fired. Will this response hijack the brain's resources and all but shut-down the executive conscious brain? Or will you have enough resources available to pause the near automatic response and choose a better alternate response?

Now that we understand that we all need our balance of Safety, Belonging and Mattering as fundamental, how do you deal with those “difficult” people? Especially when one of them is your boss!

If you have several “difficult people” you probably have a systemic, leadership or organisation-wide cultural issue that needs to be addressed. This is where you create a genuinely safe environment in the workplace, you'll draw everyone together with an engaging mission and command intent, have cultural rituals that demonstrate your values and have absolute transparency and accountability structures.

For now, we'll focus here with the key one or two “difficult” individuals.

Before you address the “difficult” person, you'll find it helpful to wear the right power attitude. Because, the truth is, there are no “difficult people”, only people whom you have some difficulty dealing with their behaviour(s). I'd recommend that you wear the attitude: “People are not their behaviours” as if it were true.

Take some time to listen and observe what is happening and consider which one is triggering the unwanted behaviour:

Your task then is to address the person, help them feel safe, reassure them that they belong and they matter and alter the behaviour.

When you want to deal with the “difficult behaviour” you'll first need to help them feel safe enough to shift from their critter state. As a coach, when I'm asked to deal with people in this situation I find it immensely helpful to find a safe environment to meet (a separate office or secure, private video-conference) and then begin with breathing.

Like you, I don't actually like dealing with someone who is exhibiting unwanted behaviour. I get anxious and I want to reduce the cortisol flowing through my veins. To do that, breathe in deeply through the nose into the belly, and out through the mouth. Do this three times and cortisol levels drop. You're tricking your brain that everything is safe. Do this in front of someone, and most people will, unconsciously, mirror you. Now you can use one of these influencing phrases:

See how each of these phrases reinforce safety, belonging and mattering?

Everyone, especially those “difficult people”, craves to feel safe to belong and to matter.

Even your boss! When you identify what matters most to them and help them achieve it, they will be happier, more engaged and more successful.

And remember, those “difficult people” were simply drawing your attention to something they believed was lacking for them. All your other team members need to feel safe, to belong and to matter as well. Take care of them too. And your kids, your wife, your friends, the bus driver, the street cleaner, the toilet attendant… even your boss craves to feel safe, to belong and to matter.

Need some help to lead difficult people with purpose? Get in touch now.

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