THE QUESTION I GET ASKED THE MOST

the question

Being a professional speaker on the subject of leadership in its many forms (e.g., leading a transformation process, leading an organization through a crisis, leading a worldwide supply chain, etc.) is a great way to make a living, and as a side benefit, you meet an interesting cast of characters on a regular basis in some great locations.

As I am completing my fifth year in this “life after the Army,” I was reflecting on the many audiences I have been privileged to address around the globe, and I began thinking about the questions I get asked in the question-and-answer period of my talks and the one I get asked the most. Sometimes this question will come up after I complete my talk and I’m standing around meeting with the audience. But regardless of the setting, it always comes up.

The question is, “How do I work with (or handle) a bad boss/employee/subordinate?”

I struggle with the answer because it’s often a question tinged with emotion. You can sense it REALLY bothers the questioner, but the setting and time constraints usually limit my response to a few bromides that leave neither myself nor the questioner satisfied. So let me try an answer while flying at 36,000 feet and seated in 12B and see what I come up with.

First, it’s important to define “bad.” If “bad” means illegal, unethical, immoral, or unsafe behavior, then it has to be addressed and elevated to management. Otherwise you become an accomplice.

So let’s assume that we are not addressing that kind of behavior, rather we are dealing with folks who are difficult to work with and/or uncomfortable to be around. They are a “pain.” In order to successfully work this issue to a viable solution, you will have to really define what is bothering you about the other’s behavior. Does it happen at certain times? Around certain events? What specifically “bothers” you about the behavior?

It’s a fact of life that not everyone can get along with everyone else; however, I have observed that some folks get along better than others, and I have seen them exhibit a few skills that are worth sharing:

1. They put themselves in someone else’s shoes before they respond. Put another way, they don’t make it all about themselves but look at the world from the other person’s view. This new perspective often (not always) aids in rectifying the perceived negative behavior. (For example: “I didn’t realize how overwhelmed Judy feels. We didn’t give her a full orientation but just threw her in the deep end. No wonder she is so snappy and short with folks.”) After reflecting, you may or may not choose to share this new perspective with the other party.

2. When they address a problem with the other party, they pick a time and place that is unemotional. They don’t address the issue when they are upset and/or are in a public setting where the discussion becomes a win vs. lose event and the audience gets to pick sides. I have observed that they schedule an appointment with the other party and they have a fact-based discussion using statements and questions such as the following: “Here’s what I am observing. What am I missing? Can you help me clear this up?”

3. They listen--really listen. They come to the interaction waiting to listen vs. waiting to talk and are patient to the extreme. This waiting requires a suspension of their agenda, and they hold off their agenda so that they will learn something instead of trying to win an argument and attack the other party.

4. They offer themselves up by focusing on their responsibilities instead of the other party’s shortcomings. They come to the interaction with a “Can you help me?” perspective instead of a “What’s wrong with you?” attitude. That has the effect of lowering shields and engaging the other party in a helpful conversation intended to benefit both of you.

These 4 techniques can be helpful but not a panacea. Some folks will simply be too difficult to deal with. (There is a reason that divorce rates are so high!) In that case, if the other party is a boss, you’ll need to do a business case analysis to see how bad the situation is, and if it’s really that bad, develop your exit strategy. If the other party is a subordinate employee, you’ll likewise do an analysis that determines their value added to the firm vs. the negative behavior. As my Dad used to say about cooks in his restaurant, “Is that great steak they cook worth it if we have to put up with this other stuff?” Sometimes it was. Often it wasn’t.

Then you have to take the view that the negative performer is taking up someone’s dream job and you need to go find that dreamer.

As a leader it may help to remember that when you have all the facts in front of you, you don’t have a problem to solve. You have a decision to make.

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