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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dealing With Difficult Personalities

I spoke last week to a group on dealing with difficult personalities. I'm not sure if they chose me for that topic because I'm a difficult personality or because I'm good at doing it. But in either case, I thought I'd share my notes.

Dealing with difficult personalities (DP) is an art form. There is never one consistent way it can be done. In math 2+2 always equals 4, but with personalities, sometimes 2+2=4, and sometimes 1+1+2=4, while other times it's 1+3=4.

The first thing you have to learn about DP's is an understanding of general concepts and applied knowledge. You won't be learning a formula that is always the same. You'll be learning some general concepts and then how to apply knowledge from one situation to another.

The second thing you have to learn is that a person with a DP is not someone that is broken or wrong, they simply don't fit in with the majority of opinions or personalities in your small group acting the way they presently do. This is caused primarily by 3 situations - cultural differences, personal insecurities and/or inner turmoil. Understanding what the source of the problem is will help overcome the problems caused by the DP.

The final thing to learn is a basic understanding of how individuals form small groups where these DP's become a problem. There are 4 steps to the creation of a small groups. First proposed by Bruce Tuckman, the stages are:

  1. Forming - people get together, meet and create the group
  2. Storming - people voice personal ideas and opinions and push the limits of the group
  3. Norming - people set the boundaries and establish norms
  4. Performing - the group begins to function effectively

Understanding this process will help place an importance on effectively dealing with the DP earlier instead of later. If you wait weeks to deal with a problem, the group stays in limbo between Storing and Norming and never reaches Performing, which makes for a frustrating and ineffective group. By handling the problem earlier, the group can quickly move to the Performing stage, which is the desired result.

Now with a basic understanding and some background, here are the 3 steps to dealing with difficult personalities.

Establish and understand why there is a problem:

  1. cultural - they don't understand what is socially acceptable
  2. insecurity - they feel insecure and it causes them to react socially unacceptable
  3. inner turmoil - they are going through a rough time in their life which has modified their normally socially acceptable behavior.
    Do this by perception and assumption or research by asking them directly.

Formulate a plan:

  1. immediate - done to the group when something potentially harmful to the others in the group has been said or done. This brings an immediate correction to the individual. It has the potential to be harmful so it must be handled correctly and with care.
  2. private - used for most issues - This method respects their self esteem and personal security.
  3. public - if it has a general application that everyone in the group can benefit from if a generic correction is made. This doesn't involve singling the DP out, but addresses the entire group with a corporate issue.

Execute the plan:

  1. Always keep their self-esteem a top priority
  2. Always keep the performance of the group the very top priority. More important than the individual is the group. Don't let the group take second place to the individual. This empowers the individual to continue to cause problems.
  3. Ask yourself, "How will this plan effect the individual / the group?" Think of all of the potential outcomes and prepare for the worst of them. If the worst doesn't happen, then things are better than expected.
  4. Make notes to yourself before confronting. In confrontation, the person being confronted will often want to distract you from your original points, which causes you to be ineffective. Making notes makes your actions deliberate and keeps you on track.
  5. Preface your comments with anticipated objections so you diffuse responses. Giving disclaimers doesn't weaken your position. Instead it provides assurance to them on the front side of things and helps lay the ground work to overcome any misunderstandings. By saying "I don't want you to think we don't like you, but here is the problem..." You have reduced the potential for the individual to become hostile because they are feeling attacked. You have just reassured them that you like them, which implies you wouldn't attack them.
  6. Always reassure them in the end - Restate all of your prefaces again to remind them everything is going to be okay. Something like "I don't know if that came out right, but I want to assure you again that we like you we just don't want this problem anymore."

Remember these things:

  • If your stuck - ask for help - find someone who can independently provide insight into the problem.
  • Difficult personalities are the leaf, not the root of the problem. Try to get to the root.
  • Dealing with people is an art form. Always look for the best way to solve this problem and don't just repeat what worked last time.
  • You can eliminate most problems by setting the expectations for the group in the forming stage. Then when a problem arises, you can refer to the ground rules of the group.

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