No matter how well you run your organization, you’ll inevitably encounter either problematic members or difficult third parties. Depending on the situation and the people involved, you can employ different strategies to deal with difficult individuals.
But before we delve into the strategies, there’s an important point I’d like for you to consider. Do you need to look at your own handsome mug in the mirror? Every person is affected to various degrees by cognitive bias. Cognitive bias is the brain working to ensure that our views are consistent. Therefore, we are biased to accept information more readily that agrees with our views, and we more readily reject evidence against our established views. If you’ve ever gotten into a frustrated argument with a stodgy old relative, you’ll understand how this bias works.
As a leader, you must understand that you and the people you interact with are affected by cognitive bias. It’s imperative that you take a step back from difficult situations to evaluate all the evidence in a fair manner. Recruit a devil’s advocate if you need to. This is important because YOU MIGHT BE WRONG! If someone is being difficult, you should ask yourself whether you made the mistake. Once you are certain that you are not mistaken and you have a well-vetted strategy for moving forward, then you can begin to deal with difficult people.
NOTE: A difficult person is not necessarily bad for your organization. There are plenty of prickly individuals who have the best interests of the organization at heart. Additionally, anyone can have a bad day once in a while. There’s much to be said about forgiveness and second chances. Especially in college, where people are still finding their footing and discovering themselves, I think a good inclusive organization allows its members to fail with grace and gives them the tools to get back up and try again. Your best members will thank you and will repay your kindness in spades. However, there are some people who will take advantage of your kindness and will try to disrupt the operations of the team. These individuals need to be dealt with quickly and assertively.
Here are the major strategies that you will employ to deal with difficult people. I’ve listed them from simplest to most difficult in terms of implementation:
Accede: Do what the difficult person wants in order for you to achieve your goal.
Ignore: Go around the person and don’t pay attention to them.
Overrule: Use your positional authority and political capital to force your decision into place.
Confront: Get into an exchange with the person to try and get what you want through a test of wills.
Compromise: Find a middle ground that you and the other affected parties can agree upon. Each of you will give up something in order to get something in return.
Remove: Get rid of the difficult person in the least dramatic way possible.
Isolate: Take away that person’s support or power. Maneuver the organization so that they stand alone in their opinion.
Convert: Convince the difficult person of the rightness of your position and have them join your view of the world.
In terms of effectiveness, I’ve found that the below spectrum is a reasonable approximation of least effective to most effective strategies.
Confront –> Ignore –> Accede –> Overrule –> Remove –> Compromise –> Isolate –> Convert
I’ll now discuss the strategies in more detail.
This is the simplest strategy because it means giving in to the demands that are being made of you. It’s also moderately effective because it mollifies the person and avoids conflict in the short term. It’s possible that the difficult party may feel grateful (you should make it clear that you’re doing a favor by acceding), and you may be able to start the process of conversion. At the very least, you’ll have granted a request that you may be able to cash in, in the future. My warning is that this gesture can also make you seem weak. It can also set a poor precedent that may inspire others to demand changes from you.
When Should You Use the Accede Strategy?
This strategy should be employed if the person you’re having a difficult time with is making a demand that has limited impact. This counts doubly so if you’re dealing with important members or outsiders. Small concessions are a great way to show your magnanimity; however, you should keep note of them and call in favors when you feel it’s necessary.
CS1: The team had set up an exhibition debate with representatives from PETA. Through setting up the event, we had negotiated terms of payment, the debate prompt, and debate format. At the last minute, the PETA representatives requested bottled water and pen and paper be provided. Since it was a simple request, we granted it without fanfare.
This is a simple if mostly ineffective strategy. Most issues, when ignored, will persist or worsen. If people felt an issue was worth bringing up in the first place, they will feel snubbed and may decide to escalate their displeasure by voicing it with other teammates thus exacerbating the issue. Think of it like a younger sibling poking you with a stick; if you ignore him, he may choose to whack you with a bat.
When Should You Use the Ignore Strategy?
The ignore strategy has its time and place. For small transitory issues, ignoring may be the most cost-effective method. Often these problems will either become irrelevant or solve themselves. Additionally, some individuals just like to complain and will not act. If the complaints are largely self-contained (they’re not affecting other members), you can choose to ignore them.
The overrule strategy is one of the simpler options and is moderately effective. Especially if you hold the top position within your organization, you may have the power to veto or force your decision into place regardless of what a difficult member wants. All you need to do is to cite your authority and ensure that members are in place who are willing to carry out your vision.
When Should You Use the Overrule Strategy?
The overrule strategy should be used sparingly. Once you’ve overruled a difficult member, you are responsible for all the outcomes of your decision. Additionally, leveraging your positional authority and political capital can make you seem petty or insecure. However, you may wish to use this strategy if expediency is necessary and you have information that other members do not or should not know about.
This is a middlingly difficult strategy that tends to be minimally effective. When you enter into a confrontational role, your difficult members generally have two responses. They will either fight back, or they will accede. If they decide to dig their heels in, this will create a scene within your organization. Regardless of the outcome, confrontation will temporarily put both parties on equal ground as people take one side or the other. You do not want to give up the high ground if you can avoid it (ask Anakin Skywalker). Once you’ve lost that aura of authority, gaining it back can be difficult.
If the difficult person chooses to accede, it will generally be a temporary victory. They will feel angry and will likely cause more problems in the future. That said, confronting can be the precursor of removal, but should not be confused with conversion. If your plan is to remove a person, it’s best to do it quickly and quietly, but if a show down is necessary, you can use a confrontation as a reason for removal. I would be cautious of this approach lest you then cause all discourse to cease within your organization for threat of removal.
Confrontation should not be confused with conversion, though both require dialogue. Conversion requires listening to other people’s ideas and convincing them to adopt your point of view. Confrontation, in contrast, is a power play where you attempt to browbeat your idea until your opponent submits. I would avoid this strategy unless all other options have failed.
When Should You Use the Confront Strategy?
Leaders should avoid the confrontation strategy for the simple reason that there are more effective strategies available to you. That being said, sometimes a showdown is necessary and can be helpful for your organization. Under the rare circumstance when one of your members harbors negative intentions towards your organization or its people, you may decide to confront them and cause a scene. Confrontation will demonstrate an assertive stance toward an issue. If you are certain that you are correct and the issue is central to the team’s mission, a confrontation may be necessary.
CS1: When I was first elected president, there was significant trepidation about the direction that I would take the team. One senior member with influence was particularly adamant that the team should continue to operate as it had previously. She argued that the previous president and vice president would be back at the beginning of the next academic year, and they would want things to stay the same. I countered that I had a new vision for the team and that a nationally competitive organization was not only in the best interest of the members but also required significant reforms. Eventually, I informed her that I would advance my agenda with or without her support. She eventually left the team which removed an obstacle to my changes. However, many senior members with important experience and insights followed her out, and I was left with mostly new members who believed in my vision for the team.
This strategy tends to be both reasonably difficult as well as reasonably effective as long as you can withstand the initial pushback. Whenever people are removed from your organization, their voices disappear with limited future impact. However, removing a difficult person can be a trying matter. It would be ill-advised to remove people arbitrarily because you disagree with them. You’ll need to have both specific reasons and the evidence to support the removal; you should expect pushback from your board members who are interested in keeping that person on the team. Whenever a person is removed, team members will ask questions. You need to be prepared to answer those questions in a way that satisfies curiosity without violating the privacy of the individual.
When Should You Use the Remove Strategy?
You should use the remove strategy when the evidence is on your side. Setting up a transparent evaluation system allow you to determine which members are up for removal. If the member has committed an error that you consider so grievous that immediate removal is necessary, you’ll either need to confirm this exception with your board or be prepared to explain your decision to act without them.
Compromise is both reasonably difficult and reasonably effective. This will require you to give up something in order to gain something. You’ll need to do a quick cost benefit analysis to determine whether you should make a deal. Don’t give up anything that’s fundamental to the operations of the team, and be cautious about bending rules for an individual. That being said, don’t be an obstinate ostrich with its head stuck in the muck. You’ll need to consider your best alternative solution if a compromise cannot be reached and whether that solution is preferable to the compromise solution you can negotiate. If it isn’t, you’ll want to work towards a compromise.
When Should You Use the Compromise Strategy?
The compromise strategy should be your go-to strategy after trying the convert strategy. In most cases, team members are invested in the team’s success. Once you’ve listened to your difficult members’ point of view, you may find that their position has merit. If you can find a compromise that’s a win-win for all involved, it may be better than focusing solely on your own solutions.
This is one of the more difficult strategies to pull off with success. The important thing here is not to be seen as petty or exclusionary. Understand in what way the person is being difficult and see if you can isolate it to a single idea or mode of operation. Then, start moving the organization in a direction which opposes it. Essentially, you’ll want to convince the board so that it takes your position on how the team will move forward. If you’re successful, the peer pressure will generally make the difficult person fall in line. Make it seem as if their response to team’s changes is antiquated and baseless. If they’re gaining other value from the organization, they may drop the point without drama, and you’ll be able to move on.
When Should You Use the Isolate Strategy?
Due to its difficulty, you should pursue an isolate strategy only when the stakes for your organization are high, and you don’t want to permanently remove a difficult person. Perhaps you believe that the person has value or will eventually come to your way of thinking. An isolated person is more likely to leave an organization, so you must also be prepared for that reality.
CS3: As I worked to build both a more consistent schedule and stable financial situation for the Judo team, I ran into one member who was opposed to paying dues and wanted to have only one practice a week. After I realized that he would not budge from his position, I talked in private with other members of the team. I convinced them that we needed to have practices two times a week to ensure a consistent cadence to keep up our skills. I also convinced them of the importance of dues to support the hiring of a teacher and purchase of uniforms. Eventually, these policies were instated by vote and the difficult member, who still complained from time to time, decided to go along with the changes (though, he decided to continue showing up only once a week).
This is both the most difficult and most effective method for dealing with a troublesome person because it requires you to recruit that person onto your side and have them operate on your imperative. In order for your initiatives to be successfully, you need as much support as possible. If the evidence supports your world view and initiative, then convincing others of the correctness of your position is vital to ensure a smooth implementation.
The first step is to sit the person down in a one on one meeting and understand their concerns. Listen intently and try not to argue your point lest you move into confrontation. Once you understand the position they hold, try to ascertain why they believe in that position. What evidence has led to their conclusion? Do you have evidence that undermines their position? Once you’ve gotten a general understanding of the issue, do some background research with the rest of the members on your organization. Do other members understand why this person is acting a certain way? What do they believe to be the person’s motivation? See if you can find any themes or draw any conclusions. Next, try to figure out whether you are the best person to deal with this or if the difficult person would be more willing to listen to another member on your team. Once you’ve determined the best person to pursue the conversion, convince that person of your point of view (if necessary). Then, set up another meeting with the difficult individual with a strategy in place to explain how your approach is not incomprehensible with their ultimate goal/motive. Realize that this can be a lengthy process, and you may need to provide direct evidence that proves how your policy will be in the best interest of the team and in the person’s best interest in the long run. Ask them for their suggestions and ask them to work with you to improve your approach. Now, you should have them working for you instead of against you.
When Should You Use the Convert Strategy?
The convert strategy should be the first strategy you attempt for any change that’s significant. Not only will attempting conversion clarify your own reasons for pursuing an initiative, but it will also allow you to bring naysayers, who might cause trouble, onto your side. Due to the required energy investment of the convert strategy, it may not be the most efficient strategy to use with all members. For small changes and minor updates, an overrule strategy might be better suited. Members may complain for a while, but they’ll eventually fall in line. However, for large changes, the conversion strategy is absolutely necessary.
CS1: At the end of my freshman year, I had just been unanimously re-elected to serve as president for my sophomore year. With a group of excited new members, the organization needed some significant changes to its policies, goals, and initiatives in order to begin the journey towards national renown. This was a critical time to chart the beginning of a revitalized organization, and I needed as much support as I could get. Before the first meeting of the team at the beginning of my sophomore year, I sat down with each member one on one to discuss their vision and desires for the team. During these meetings, I worked to convince each person of the need for aggressive goals and policies. As I gained a greater understanding of what each member wanted out of the team, I shared with them my vision of a nationally competitive organization and explained how that would fulfill their desires. For those who wanted to be competitive and rack up awards, I explained that my vision and policies would help the team become more structured and competitive. For those who wanted a more social organization, I explained how a more successful team led to greater team pride, identity, and social events. Eventually, I had buy in from almost all of my members. During the first general body meeting, I leveraged my relationships with each of my members to outline my vision, now supplemented with their ideas and desires, for the team. The members voiced their strong support, and we were able to get into the nitty gritty of how to make our collective dream of a strong team into a reality.
Questions to Consider
What outside factors might be causing a person to be difficult?
Is the difficult person being difficult for a reason? Is it possible that on this count, you might be in the wrong?
When you seek to remove someone from your organization, what precedent does that set for your team? Are you okay with this precedent?