Don’t Deal with Difficult People – Change the Lack of Alignment Instead

March 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Are difficult people a symptom or a cause?  They are certainly cause disruption but are they difficult by nature or does the environment influence their difficulty behaviors? Depending upon how you stand on this issue will determine what you are willing to do to correct it.

The prevailing theory seems to be that difficult people are just plain difficult and there is nothing we can do except DEAL with them.  Thus the titles of numerous articles appear as Dealing with Difficult People. This theory causes Human Resource professionals to provide training to help individuals to defend themselves with certain responses and or to attempt to change the difficult person.   I believe this is wrong and the purpose of this article is to provide reasons why.

I believe that difficult people are a symptom of a dysfunctional system at least 99% of the time.  That choice to think differently about the problem will offer us new solutions. Let’s explore why I believe this is true and the new actions we can take for improvement.

If people are a cause then we must ask “How did they get hired in the first place?”   Why would we hire difficult people consciously?  We wouldn’t.  Yet if we have these people at work how did they get there?  Did we hire them unknowingly or did they develop in our work environment?  If we hired them unknowingly then they are still a symptom.  We can conclude that our hiring process is flawed.  If we fixed our hiring process we would be able to avoid these mistakes.  The root cause is therefore either the hiring process or the work environment.  It’s not the difficult person.

If difficult people are a symptom we must now change our focus to address the cause of the problem.  Instead of trying to change that person we must look for the cause in the work environment (in the system).  There are five essential interdependent items that create the work environment.  One or more of these are creating the problem for that difficult employee. I call it a “lack of alignment.”  That lack of alignment brings forth the difficult behavior.  That lack of alignment is the real root cause.  It’s the job of a leader to identify and fix that lack of alignment.

The items that interact to create the work environment are the vision, the mission (aim), the values, the strategy, and the culture.  Every employee needs a clear purpose for working.  Some claim they can just go to work for a paycheck but they are in denial about their true needs as a healthy and productive human being.  The vision and mission interact to create a clear purpose for working.  When they are flawed or unclear the individual is impacted.  The vision is the ideal picture of the future of the organization.  The mission is why the organization exits in the first place.  The aim is not to make money.  Money is more like the blood in our bodies.  We need it to live but we don’t live for it.

The values provide a set of acceptable   behaviors that everyone must follow.  Very often the difficult person is unaware of how they impact others.  The values provide a method to give feedback to everyone and offer new options without anger and blame.

The strategy is how the organization is going to move toward its vision and mission.  If this is unclear employees can’t connect their everyday actions with progress.  That disconnection is upsetting especially over time.

Finally, the culture is the habits or norms of the work environment.  The culture can change if the first four items are improved.

It is a leader’s job to clarify and align the organization on these foundational items.  There are two enormous benefits with this approach.  First, we can enroll the help of the difficult person to help us to understand where the lack of alignment is.  This enrollment instantly changes the attitude and accountability of the person.  Second, there are other people impacted by this same lack of alignment.  These people go undetected because they don’t react in an obvious manner like the difficult person does.  They are more subtle.  They may hide their displeasure with the disconnections by being less productive, or missing work a little more frequently, or talking about the company in a negative light when they are not at work.

In summary, difficult people are a symptom.  Why waste time on a symptom trying to change them with threats or bribes like performance reviews etc.  Why not get to the root causes and fix the lack of alignment?  That is what a leader must do.  The key is to know how to do it.  I can help.  It’s called the Value and System Leadership Model.


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