As a leader no challenge is greater than learning how to work with difficult people. I have experienced this in my own life and career many times. I do not pretend to have all the answers or the magical solution. Every relationship is driven by its own dynamics as well as the environment it functions in and the events that shape it. Still, there are some lessons to be learned on how best to deal with difficult people on a team.
Learn from Great Leaders
In Dennis NT Perkin’s book, Leading at the Edge, he discussed how Shakleton, the leader of an Antarctic expedition over a century ago, dealt with difficult people when decisions and follow-through were a matter of life and death. Stranded on an ice flow, without ability to communicate with the civilized world, the crew of the sunken ship Endurance had to find a way to survive and rescue themselves.
One of the most difficult crew members was the carpenter, a man named McNeish. When Shackleton ordered the men to drag life boats filled with hundreds of pounds of food and supplies across the ice in bone freezing weather McNeish refused and staged a tantrum of sorts, risking mutiny. Shackelton listened passively as McNeigh ranted until he had vented and exhausted himself. Shackelton wasted no time arguing with him. He turned his back on him and went on with the journey. His men saw the wisdom in it, saw that Shackleton was not going to waste energy and time with a power struggle and they fell in with their leader.
Doris Kearns Goodwin in her brilliant description of President Lincoln handling an entire cabinet which was to one degree or another hostile to him in Team of Rivals discusses how Lincoln through a brilliant combination of evasion, inaction, confrontation and action outmaneuvered each of his rivals and succeeded in bringing most of them into alignment with his mission to save the Union. He even befriended many of them to the extent that they became fiercely loyal to him even though for many years prior they had been his political rivals.
What Shackleton and Lincoln had in common was the ability to listen to those who were difficult, measure their resolve, observe their effect on others, and discern when to act and when not to act. In both cases these leaders avoided useless power struggles while maintaining control over their team and their mission. In both cases the leader remained steadfast in his dedication to the team and its success and to the goals and mission he had designed.
Lincoln was once asked how to deal with an intransigent man who would not change and would not get out of the way. His response was that as a farmer he had learned that there was often a large immovable stone in a field that blocked progress while ploughing. He said that the wise farmer simply ploughed around the immovable stone. That, he said, is what he would do with the immovable man – he would simply plough around him.
It takes experience with people, a willingness to listen and to learn, a genuine humility and a dedication to the mission or goal in order to accomplish this. It is not always easy and it can fail. But like Shackleton and Lincoln effective leaders find a way either to befriend their foes or to decline to battle them and move around them. When done correctly this inspires the team and solidifies the leadership position of the leader.
The next time you are faced by a difficult person apply these skills from great leaders. Listen with attentiveness and humility. Refrain from useless argument and power struggles. Find a way to plough around them and pursue the goals of the team. Most teams will see the futility of the difficult person and will follow a leader who has earned their respect.Wishing you well,
Daniel R. Murphy
Educating people for building wealth, adapting to a changing future and personal development.