There are in any organisations difficult situations which fall short of either grievance or disciplinary procedures against the staff who create the difficulties. Possibly all managers and senior managers can identify certain members of their organisation whom they find awkward, and whom they secretly dread having to deal with; it’s as if that particular person, or sometimes even small group of like-minded people, have identified the one Achilles’ heel of the manager, and continually jab at it.
Often the Achilles’ heel is quite simply emotional. For example, the manager who in the three years since his appointment has been given two substantial increases in funding over and above other departments, who has had re-furbished accommodation, who has been given more than their fair share of extra support, and so on - and yet who continually complains of under-resourcing and unfairness, and who is known to broadcast this fact and foment dissatisfaction. What irks is the ingratitude; and every time the senior manager encounters such a person, it is difficult to stifle the hostility that arises because the sense of ingratitude - as the nasal whining starts - immediately starts to foam to the surface! As has been truly observed: 90% of the frictions in daily life derive from tone of voice.
Ingratitude is one galling situation. But there are many others: the coterie within the staff generally known as the ‘awkward squad’, the shirkers and the apathetic, Mr and Mrs Angry and the confrontational brigade, Mr and Ms Clever at Meetings and the well-known Lord and Lady Catch-you-outs, then the Sir Sam-the-withering-Remark; add the Timekeeper family, the Always-Construe-you-Wrong and the every-where-you-go Nit-Picks. And so on. Initially, one has patience to deal with them; but after a period of time their continual attitudes and negative contributions begin to wear. What, then, is to be done?
The first thing is to realise that conflict is endemic - that handling such situations is why you are a manager. Why would we need managers if people naturally co-operated and worked towards common goals effortlessly? Thus it is crucial that one sees conflict and difficult situations as the ground of opportunity for the exercise of management skills rather than as a ‘problem’. To say this is not to say that we are engaging in empty management semantics – ‘problems equals opportunities’, so problem solved? It is for each manager or boss to re-think their view of what is going on. It is essentially, then, to re-view.
Given that standing back for re-view, the second thing to do is to sharpen management skills. There are a number that we might consider (e.g. assertiveness, active listening, appraising, persuading etc.) but for now, I wish to focus on one skill which is pretty critical for successful outcomes with difficult people and which does incorporate many other skills: negotiation. One can, if one has developed negotiating skills, always reach a positive result - even if that result is only to know that something further, and more serious, must be done. Fundamentally, we are thinking here about negotiating with ‘difficult’ staff so that they become less difficult!
Roger Fisher (in his book, Getting to Yes) identified five useful processes in negotiation, and all together or any of these separately can be extremely powerful in dealing with difficult people.
First, he suggested, separate the person from the problem: in one sense the person is the problem, or rather, their perception is the problem. We need, then, to avoid taking comments personally and reacting to them. We need to withhold judgement and to attempt to stand in their shoes: if I were that difficult person .... what is it that is actually driving me? Do not retaliate, avoid head-on confrontation, listen actively and try to build a Yes-momentum into the conversation. The phrase ‘Yes-but’ is always negative, and so avoid it: try ‘Yes, however’ or ‘Yes, and’. Make sure you deal with feelings - yours and theirs. These are probably at the root of the problem anyway - remember that the acknowledgement of emotion is incredibly powerful as a persuasive tool, and cannot be gainsaid. Who can deny your feelings? Thus, ‘I think you’re a male chauvinist (pig stated or implied)’ is not helpful, will irritate and provoke, and can be easily denied; ‘I feel that women (in the team) are not given the same chances’ is much more powerful, because who can deny that is how YOU feel? Be open, then, with your feelings, but do not make the problem a personal issue. Finally, ask open questions in order to dig deeply into the situation, and when you feel that you are being boxed in with counter-arguments, play for time: ‘Can I think about that and get back to you tomorrow?’ or ‘I need to consult X - can I get back?’
Second, identify common interests: working in an organisation together means you must have common commercial or professional interests at least. One rock bottom one is: we must do what is best for the customer or patient. Any employee who denied that would immediately be signaling that they are not in the right occupation or career. So managers need to explore and look for common commercial or professional interests - these motivate people and limit difficult attitudes. Equally, if we can identify common personal interests (so long as these do not supplant professional ones - thus creating a cosy Country Club effect) then the chances are we can really have a dynamic team. Of course, such personal common interests need to be real and not synthetic: developing a passion for football in order to suck up to an avid but difficult Liverpool supporter in your company is not going to endear you. From my own experience I well remember long ago, as a head of department, I seemed to be constantly in conflict at committee meetings with a member of another department, and it clearly seemed to be a question of ‘hate at first sight’. What curiously resolved this was the accidental discovery one day that we were both fans/nerds of the cult singer Scot Walker! Immediately as we exchanged tapes and chat, our professional relationship blossomed, and we liked each other. That discovery was accidental, but the message, perhaps, is to consider how much time is spent on relationship processes - if the organisation is so task-orientated (as, to be frank, so many are) that it has little time for processes, then difficult people are bound to be the corollary.
Thirdly, generate options: once one has identified - through the kinds of negotiation outlined above - what the real problem is, then one moves towards a solution. It is a good idea never to leap to the first answer, but to consider widely. Brainstorming is a good technique for producing a number of options. The rules of brainstorming are well-known. One thing to bear in mind: when brainstorming with the difficult person, sit side by side, not facing each other - physically face the problem together, rather than facing each other.
Fourthly, establish criteria of fairness: one of the commonest, if not the most common, cause of difficult people is their perception, rightly or wrongly, of unfairness: they have been treated badly, their talents have not been appreciated, they have been overlooked. All leaders recognise this phenomenon and these people. Thus it is vital in dealing with the problem that fairness is at the heart of the solution. However, fairness means what it says: the fairness must not be at your expense, because that will create a worse situation than the difficulty you are currently encountering. So, insist on fairness, but be open to what it actually might be. No-one has a monopoly on fairness and this needs to be established by negotiation. Remember, if one cuts the pie, the other chooses the slice!
Finally, and most critically of all in my opinion and experience, be aware of what your BATNA is. Your BATNA? Yes, your Best Alternative To a Negotiated Settlement! This really is asking the question - if I don’t reach agreement with this difficult person, what happens? If I abandon agreement, what happens for me? What happens for that person? Basically, the person with the best BATNA has the most power.
Look at it from the manager’s point of view: say, my sales manager is entirely disaffected - and has a core of ‘friends’ on the staff who listen to her poison. She constantly tries to belittle me with ambiguous but sarcastic remarks at senior meetings. So, if the negotiation is successful, this will cease, and the sales manager will focus more of her efforts on her role and the sales figures. I, in turn, will feel more positive towards her. This will manifest itself in greater support and more resources, including emotional and career, from me; certainly a better reference; and certainly a consideration for internal promotion should the opportunity arise. But if the negotiation should fail, what then? Who has it worse? The sales manager is in a difficult position should the I, the boss, seek to fault find and undermine her position, but may be able to weather it; certainly, the sales manager is trapped in her role and may be able to make the jump without a reference and support, but that too is risky. But I, the boss, also, suffer: a weak sales manager, a damaging dispute that eventually others will hear of - how much credibility does the sales manager have with them? I could fire her, but how much would that cost, and in any case if I have done that three times already in the last year, how am I beginning to appear? In short, who has the better BATNA? All leaders ought to consider this in dealing with difficult staff. It is relatively easy to win a battle through position power, but one’s credibility may seriously be damaged as a result.
This is a brief account of a very difficult area. Finally, using third parties is always a good idea in highly sensitive situations, so long as the third-party has the support of both parties. But that is another story …