It was in the middle of an executive coaching session over the phone when she told me her boss was drunk on power. Every day, there were multiple missed communication opportunities with her boss, and many work-arounds given her boss’s behavior. Her boss often was a micro manger and got “way down into the weeds.” Furthermore, she reported that every one was trying to get on the boss’s good side. When she visited with an outside consultant, he told her that her boss just churns and burns people out. As he explained to her, “learn to live with it or move on.”
As she shared about working with such a challenging person, I thought of the following line from Jim Collin’s book, How The Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In, HarperCollins, 2009, where he shared the first line of Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Everyday, we meet challenging people. In the beginning we need to remember that people at work need to cooperate with each other, be reliable, accountable, honest and effective. What successful people realize is that in order to be all of these elements at work we must have healthy levels of collaboration, respect and understanding with each other. We also need to remember that we are not going to change our basic personality structure or that of the person who is challenging. Awareness of this can make a world of difference.
First, after significant amount of reflection, I have come to the conclusion that successful people understand how others learn. While no one has a better learning style than anyone else, there are three basic types of learning, namely analyzing learners, doing learners and watching learners. Knowing this basic information helps tremendously when dealing with difficult people. Often they are difficult because they are just different than our preferred manner of learning. As one young supervisor shared with me this past summer, “I realized that I am a doer leading a group of analyzers. No wonder they have been so difficult to work with.” Another supervisor in this same training event shared with me that “I realized that I am a watcher leading a batch of doers.”
For those struggling with their boss, Peter Drucker reminded us to divide bosses into “listeners” and “readers.” The later likes to read before they discuss. The former likes to discuss and ask questions before they read the full report. In short, knowing how people learn and process information is critical to dealing with them effectively.
Second, successful people understand the difference between what others need to know, and what they do know. Successful people understand that their boss or any other challenging person is constantly dealing with stakeholders who have differing agendas and opinions. We, at times, forget that politics are normal in the work place. However, successful people recognize that their boss and others who are difficult to deal with are often managing at the edge of chaos. Successful people know that challenging people can only tolerate so much chaos before they try to shut it or someone down.
The key is to understand the context of the challenging person’s work experience. They may just be coping with things that are not on your radar screen. Furthermore, your assumptions often are the one source of why the person you are working with is challenging. In a world of such economic and political turbulence, we must understand that the boss does not just represent themselves in the community but often are an integral part of the brand identity for many stakeholders. With this in mind, I have come to the conclusion that when dealing with challenging people we need to see the world through their eyes in order to better understand why they are speaking and acting in the manner they are. As Stephen Covey taught us so many years ago, seek first to understand, second to be understood. It is still applicable today when dealing with difficult people.