How to Manage Personalities

There is a huge difference between a regular boss and a leader. Leaders are capable of managing stressors and problems in a way that is effective and doesn’t end up taking a toll on a leader’s personal life in an irreparable way, potentially burning them out on the job. This is a great article about common pet peeves managers struggle with from employees and how to manage it.

With the current economic downturn, work level stress is climbing, often manifesting itself in those particularly delightful, difficult behaviors at work – withholding, arguing, blocking, withdrawal, among others. Before we chastise those enacting these behaviors, let’s remember we are all culpable of enacting these same behaviors from time to time! No matter, here are some takeaways for managing these challenging behaviors with aplomb.

Feelings then Facts
My scientist clients ask me why their employees can’t leave their feelings at home. The irony is that the scientists too bring their feelings to work, sometimes hiding them temporarily under the proverbial carpet (putting them in shadow where they ironically loom larger). The reality is that feelings, as long as we remain humans, are here to stay. The key is ever so simple. LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN. When you listen, do so without judgment and interpretation. Ask questions to show curiosity and to learn.

Remember that what you resist, simply persists. So if you discard or ignore someone’s concerns, they are not going to go away anytime soon. Paradoxically, they just multiply!

Empathize – Get in Their Shoes
We all know that when we tell our significant others that their perspective makes no sense, our relationship doesn’t seem to improve. Imagine that! Remember the old adage: “Would you rather be right or happy?” Rather than arguing with others’ perspectives (Yes, even when they seem irrational), consider the differing perspectives an opportunity to learn more about others. Ask questions to help you understand where they are coming from; the goal is to understand – not to be right. The goal is to imagine what it is like to live in their shoes.

Identify their Interests
Fisher and Ury, from the Harvard Negotiation Program discern between interests and positions. Your position is the end product – that which you most want. Perhaps you want a raise of “X” amount or to work on a different team – these are positions. Your interests are the underlying reasons you want what you want. Find out what is really important to the person by being curious. Your listening does not commit you to meeting their needs but begins the conversation and builds the relationship. It also provides opportunities for identifying options that meet both of your interests.

Give Feedback
If a colleague doesn’t answer any of your email requests, you need to address his/her lack of response. If a boss criticizes you in front of others, feedback is the way to go. Here are the key steps for giving effective feedback:
A. Ask to set a time to talk
B. Ask for permission to give feedback
C. Very concretely, describe the behavior (“You are rude” doesn’t work, that’s an
interpretation. Describe what the person did that makes you experience them as rude).
D. Describe the impact of their behavior (“When you didn’t answer my requests, I had to
stay late.”).
E. Share how you made sense of someone’s behavior (“I assumed you were angry with
me.”). This is important because we often make assumptions that are completely 
untrue and go unchecked.
F. Ask for what you need. (“I need you to answer my emails within a 24 hour period.”).

Set Limits
There are times when neither discussion nor feedback is the answer. If someone yells at you, you need to clearly and firmly ask him or her to stop. You need to be prepared to know what you will do if she or he won’t (I am asking you to sit down and talk quietly with me. If you can’t do that now, let’s talk tomorrow). And yes, you can even say this respectfully to your boss.

Name What is Going On in the Moment
There will be times when you give someone feedback and the person insists she or he never did what you said. Quite often, if you carefully observe, she or he will perform that very behavior during your meeting. For example, if Sue said she never told you were wrong last week, chances are she will do so in your meeting now. (Sue, while you said you never told me I am wrong last week, you just did.) That’s a hard one to refute!

Reframe and Redirect
If a chronic complainer works for you and you want the complaints to stop, tell him or her that you will hear concerns only if she/he is prepared with 3 possible solutions. If you have a constant arguer in a meeting you facilitate, ask him or her to take the opposite side – what about the idea would be beneficial?

Apply Consequences
When there is a constant and consistent pattern of repeated behavior and you have tried the seven key strategies above and little has changed, you need to apply consequences and know your bottom line. You are much less likely to be curious and empathize with your children the third time they come home late than the first (especially if you gave them feedback the first time). So too, if you asked a colleague to stop yelling a week ago and listened to her or his concerns once calm, if the yelling resumes, you need to have a bottom line. You may choose to walk out or speak with her or his boss since you already addressed it directly with her or him.

It is very important to follow through on consequences once you set them or people will not take your word seriously. Harriet Lerner, in Dance of Anger, notes the propensity for people to test if the person setting consequences really means business. If Larry indicates that he will no longer respond to last minute requests, often the last minute requestor will test to see if he will “change back” and collude with these requests. If Larry is prepared for the other to test him to get him to “change back” and does not collude, the testing will end. But if he gives up in frustration, the last minute requests will unfortunately continue.

Tailoring Your Strategies
Lastly, you will need to tailor your approach to several factors: your relationship with the challenging person, his or her role in the organization and the specific type of challenging behavior. If you need to talk with a subordinate, you have legitimate power and can expect that she or he adhere to your bottom line. However, if you are confronting a peer in a different department, your requests may not be met. You may need to handle the situation organizationally by involving both your and her or his boss.

Listening, empathizing, giving feedback, setting limits, naming what is going on in the moment, reframing and redirecting and applying consequences when necessary, help address many challenging behaviors. It’s important to remember too, that even the most skillful people at managing challenging behaviors need to responsibly manage their own too!

About the Author:

Dr. Liz Berney (B.A., Yale, Ph.D., University of Maryland) consults, trains and coaches senior leaders in: Change Management, Conflict Management, Interests-based Negotiation, Influencing Skills, Customer Service, Team and Leadership Development, and Emotional Intelligence, including managing challenging personalities. She is considered an expert in the areas of team development, conflict management and the application of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator to leaders and teams. For more information on Dr. Liz Berney, visit: