How Strong Leaders Deal with Difficult People

First, let’s make sure we’re talking about difficult people, not different people. When asked to think about difficult people we work with, we often think about people who have different goals, values, approaches, methods, styles, and (sadly) even appearances. Those folks aren’t necessarily difficult; they are just different. Strong leaders not only recognize them as different, but appreciate the value of diversity and seek them out for different points of view and unique contributions.

Some people, though, are just plain difficult. Difficult people take many forms. Some are agitators who get vocal over any perceived slight. Some are negative gossips who engage in personal attacks and back-stabbing. Some seem to indulge in judging and criticizing projects and ideas just for the sport of it. Whatever the behavior, difficult people cause lots of discomfort, waste time, and disrupt progress.

How do strong leaders deal with difficult people? They tell them that if they want to be part of the community (family, group, team, organization, etc.), they have to change their behavior.

While this may sound authoritarian, the point is that strong leaders don’t require conformity of thought. On the contrary, they give everyone permission (including themselves) to say no, to take risks, to ask for what they need, to challenge the status quo, and to be willing to rethink everything they know on a daily basis. These permissions unleash energy, encourage individuality, and stimulate creativity within an organization. They fuel growth.

Requiring difficult people to adapt to the community means requiring conformity of behavior. It forces them to be accountable for the things they do — not what they think — that are harming the community. For example, someone with a criticism to express does so honestly, directly, and respectfully. The criticism is encouraged (challenging the status quo), but it is done within the boundaries of acceptable behavior (being honest, direct, and respectful).

Requiring everyone in the organizational community to conform to certain behavioral norms defines the values and character of the leader who sets them. When leaders assert themselves this way, they define who they are and what the group culture will become. People within the group then have a choice to opt in or opt out as followers. Setting behavioral boundaries is risky business, but it is what strong leaders do.

Leaders who are able to take these kinds of stands with difficult people know themselves well and have the courage that comes naturally with confidence in one’s core values and aspirations. This leads us to what we continue to emphasize in our work with leaders. The most effective leaders we see are those who work relentlessly on knowing who they are, where they are going, and who they want to take with them on that journey. They are not afraid to assert their well-defined selves into their community’s culture and, in the process, protect it from the invasive damage difficult people can inflict

~ David & Susy