Leading People We Find Challenging

Chris Atkinson - BLM columnist

“Dear Chris, I have some important news for managing directors, business owners and chief executives. A new report has been written called: How to get every employee in your company to think like YOU”

This was the first paragraph of a marketing flyer I received in the post and the strength of my reaction to its fundamental message shocked me. I know it might sound like a tempting idea as you experience the challenges of working with others who essentially don’t think like you!

In fact, it is a fast growing trend in industry.

The rapid popularisation of NLP over the last two decades reveals a good example of how marketing efforts make claims that, on the surface, could be desirable. A short internet search revealed articles and videos titled:

  • “How to make people do whatever you want”
  • “NLP mind control Convince People”
  • “Easily and quickly persuade anyone to do anything”
  • “10 Ways to Protect Yourself from NLP Mind Control”

It actually makes sense in these times of enormous pressure that you might think that life could be so much more efficient and productive if we could get others to think like us. Imagine the time and emotional energy saved if we didn’t have all these frictions or pointless arguments with others!

This line of thinking, however, is fundamentally flawed and bad for our businesses, it is a seductive lie that promises the impossible that we can change or control people, moreover that we can change or control people to be more like us.

  1. You cannot change or control people.
  2. You do not want people to think like you.

Let’s take these two points one at a time. Firstly, through manipulation techniques any control you manage to achieve will be short-term and, if ‘felt’ by the receiver, will create resentment and irritation. Common sense should tell you from personal experience that when you have felt manipulated by someone the impact was not a good one and often we become even more challenging or stubborn!

Additionally, it is true that life events can change people and with significant determination, people can even also change themselves but you, unfortunately, do not have the power to change people. Many people spend years trying to change someone while repeatedly failing to learn this simple truth.

Secondly, the world you envisage where ‘people think like you’ does not work the way you imagine it. I would guess that you feel like everything will be smoother and more co-operative, and possibly that is true, but there is a heavy price to pay! There are now huge bodies of research demonstrating that diversity of thought is essential for high performing teams and organisations.

McKinsey: “Is there a payoff from top-team diversity?” This research found that companies ranking in the top quartile of executive-board diversity had ROEs that were 53% higher and EBIT margins that were 14% higher, on average, than they were for those in the bottom quartile.

Deloitte: “Waiter, is that inclusion in my soup? A new recipe to improve business performance.” A report that summarises research conducted in three large Australian businesses about how diversity and inclusion have the capacity to lift business performance, drive innovation, customer service, collaboration and engagement.

Harvard Business School: “How to Get the Best Solutions from Your Team.” Smart organisations place a premium on group consultation. Studies done by psychologist Patrick Laughlin at the University of Illinois show that the approaches and outcomes of a cooperating group are not just better than those of the average group member, but are better than even the group’s best problem solver functioning alone, the lone problem solver can’t match the diversity of knowledge and perspectives of a multi-person unit that includes him.

The point here is that:

  1. We actually can’t do much to change people, and..
  2. Critically, we actually shouldn’t want to!!!

Any leader who wants to achieve high performance with their team needs to recognise these facts and then recognise that dealing with challenging people is a central part of leadership itself.

Learning “how to lead people we find challenging” is one of the most important skills of a leader because without this competency our behaviour is at risk of undermining our entire leadership profile through inappropriate behaviours, bad attitude and often sarcastic communication.

The truth is that no matter how hard we try to cover up our feelings we openly and visible transmit our attitude towards this individual so that, not only does the person themselves know it, but also the wider team will be aware also. You are not as skilled as you think you are in hiding those frustrations you feel.

The good news here is that the skills and competency to lead a challenging person can be learnt. There are techniques to refocus your attitude about this person but moving your attention away from what annoys you towards the talents and strengths they bring to the workplace.

This is beneficial for both parties and allows you to quickly get more productivity and therefore positivity from the other person. The other point to recognise is that your ability to influence someone does not come from clever psychological skills or technique but rather from the depth of relationship we have with the other person.

Most likely the person you find challenging is the person in your team you have the shallowest relationship with, the person you know least about personally, emotionally and spend the least time informally with.

If you want to change the situation you have to prioritise spending significant time with that person in relationship building mode, digging deep into their attitudes, experiences, beliefs and character – and importantly to listen to these things openly with total acceptance.