Working With Difficult People | Book Review

"I'm so mad at myself for letting Maya
put me in this position." (p. 114)

Virtually any leadership course, coaching session, or Friday happy hour will surface a story about working with one or more difficult people. Dr. Amy Cooper Hakim and Muriel Solomon group such challenging individuals into ten types:

• Hostile or Angry People
• Pushy or Presumptuous People
• Deceitful or Underhanded People
• Shrewd or Manipulative People
• Rude or Abrasive People
• Egotistical or Self-Centered People
• Procrastinating or Vacillating People
• Rigid or Obstinate People
• Tight-Lipped or Uncommunicative People
• Complaining or Critical People

Subtitled Handling the Ten Types of Problem People Without Losing Your Mind, their guide is respectively organized into ten parts, one for each difficulty type; with individual chapters further detailing examples and solutions for the troublesome boss, colleague, or subordinate.

This review correlates the authors' structured diagnostic process to leadership principles covered in an Academy Leadership Development workshop, then discusses several difficulty types frequently depicted in executive coaching sessions.

Read and bookmark the listening and responses checklist (pp. 285-287) and the Summing It Up chapter (pp. 323-328) first as they are valuable guidelines useful for all thirty problematic situations.

Strategy | E2L | PLP

Of the nine workshops in an Academy Leadership Excellence Course, two may be considered foundational: Energize2Lead (E2L) and Leader's Compass. Let's take a closer look. Recall, about 75% of people are wired completely differently than ourselves. When we better understand what others like to do, how they wish to be approached, and what their instinctive needs are, we are much better equipped for communication. Additionally, understanding our own likes, expectations, and fundamental needs offers an advantageous starting position for a crucial conversation. Using three dimensional E2L personality profiles allows for this, offering many benefits including reduced personal stress thereby conserving energy for positive influence.

Next, it's worth recalling that  a Personal Leadership Philosophy, or PLP,  lets people know what we expect, what we value and how we'll act under various circumstances.  A written leadership philosophy shared with one's supervisor, peers and subordinates facilitates shared expectations, common to many of Hakim's individual chapter strategies. One's leadership philosophy also states fundamental standards such as respect and frequently may align with the core values of the overall organization. 

Understanding ourselves better and sharing a leadership philosophy won't change the number of difficult people we happen upon. So let's take a closer look at commonly encountered challenging people and how Hakim recommends we deal with them.

Coaching | Cyberbullies

Stating non-negotiable behaviors is central to a leadership philosophy, particularly calling out hostile or angry behavior by peers. Hakim recommends a strategy of joining forces with fellow victims (p. 18), a terrific example of practicing team accountability.

By sharing our leadership philosophy and embedding organizational values within it, corporate and team expectations may be set in advance of non-negotiable behaviors. Additionally, many leadership course participants address related communication issues with additional expectations such as "Don't hide behind email," often a precursor to electronic bullying.

Hakim also advises spelling out the consequences of non-negotiable cyberbullying behavior and capturing documentation which may be required for internal reporting communication. When we frame behavior such as cyberbullying as violations of core organizational values we are appropriately demonstrating consistent and predictable leadership behaviors.

Coaching | Saboteurs

If we use the Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule, there's a good chance that a subordinate who seems to be occupying 80 percent of our time is a deceitful or underhanded saboteur. Recall the most important dimension of our E2L or personality profile contains our instinctive needs. Hakim points out that discontented subordinates (p. 88) have a strong need to get attention, and they meet this need with inappropriate, deceptive behavior.

The saboteur may not be recoverable. They are already consuming disproportionate amounts of energy, and likewise may actually be harming the team or organization. Hakim's strategy urges calm and order, and this may be done by first addressing the saboteur's instinctive needs. Open ended questions and good listening practices (pp. 285-287) are your best chance to get to the core issue. Sharing our expectations, non-negotiables, and most importantly consequences clearly, with documentation must be done at the same time.

If this doesn't work, Hakim prescribes two options: Offer the chance to resign or have the saboteur leave at once (termination). Keep in mind this should be done from a leader's point of view, or as follow up when expectations have not been met repeatedly, or more likely when non-negotiable behaviors or core values have not been upheld. Here the value of a written leadership philosophy is most apparent, allowing non-emotional decision-making on behalf of the team and organization.

Coaching | Imposers

Many of us naturally trust co-workers, and the shrewd or manipulative imposer is readily prepared to take unfair advantage of our time, talent and good nature (p. 114). Over time this deprives us of our energy, leading to missed opportunities and reduced happiness.

Here is where including our idiosyncrasies in our leadership philosophy can be of great help. For example, "I tend to extend trust quickly and expect that you will not take advantage of that for personal gain," can be a powerful message to share.

Hakim reminds us we don't need a reason to refuse a request (p. 115), or to just say "no" or "not this time." Most managers transitioning into leader roles struggle with saying "no," or delegating, as High Payoff Activities (HPAs) transition more into developing subordinates rather than maintaining individual subject matter expertise. Sharing our priorities in our leadership philosophy and sticking to them is a worthy habit to develop.

Coaching | Brush-Offs

After seven years of coaching hundreds of professionals, the egotistical or self-centered boss regularly surfaces as the top communications issue. Hakim pinpoints the Brush-Off's thought process:

"These people can't conceive the enormous responsibility
I have running a large department." (p. 169)

It's actually worse than that, as many coaching clients have somehow been conditioned to volunteer the comment; or feel sorry for the boss that apparently has no time for them or their personal development. This is literally the opposite of what we should want, trapping you and your boss in a false urgency cycle at the expense of a positive development environment.

The best response is occupying the role as leader, asking questions and focusing on the boss' needs (p. 170), not yours. Be prepared to listen, as you may receive an extended answer from the self-important. This will allow you to share that your mutual goal is your boss' success. Hakim wisely reminds us egotistical bosses worry about the perception their supervisors and colleagues have about their professionalism. They are insecure.

Coaching | Procrastinators

Another persistent executive coaching issue is the procrastinating or vacillating subordinate, usually introduced in coaching sessions with exasperation at what is not getting accomplished. Hakim describes three types of procrastinators: Clock-Watchers, who won't do; Duds, who can't do; and Rebels, who seek revenge (p. 215).

Guess what? As a leader, if your team is not performing, it's your responsibility. Hakim offers a four-category checklist on pages 216-217 which, in effect, challenges whether we have shared key elements of our leadership philosophy.

The first category, Do you create good rapport? may be answered by sharing our core values, what they mean to us, and describing our operating principles as a result. For example, we may describe teamwork as a value and an energized, productive and fun operating environment as a result. Second, Do you eliminate contributory factors? may be address with clarity of expectations. Third, Do you take the time to motivate? challenges how well we understand individuals (E2L) and whether or not we have created an environment which addresses core individual and team needs. Last, Have you instituted helpful mechanisms and systems? explores whether or not a developmental, or coaching ethos exists, including goal setting, tracking, and training.

Lifetime Guide

It is impossible to read all thirty vexing personality types without thinking of someone at home or an extended family member or friend. Working with Difficult People is not just about work, it is a lifetime reference for improving our relationships with people we encounter every day, everywhere.

Note: Amy Cooper Hakim generously provided a copy of her book for review.

JE | January 2018