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Leadership in any form requires that you learn to deal effectively with difficult people.

When working in a leadership role of any kind you’ve probably been forced to lead someone with whom it’s very difficult to work. However much you try and build an effective working relationship, nothing works. Sometimes there comes a point when you’ve just got to stop wasting your time and energy and manage the situation, for the benefit of the task in hand.  The vast majority of people in organisations know that change is inevitable.  Most people realise that in order to remain competitive or to deliver real value, organisations have to change with the outside environment, but this basic truth may have passed some by.  Having worked to drive organisational change for over 25 years I’ve been in this situation on a number of occasions.

I’ve written previously about understanding and overcoming resistance to change, so to be clear, what we are talking about here is those individuals that must change the way they operate, but either can’t or won’t change.  If you have members of a project team who are in this space, in my experience the main and immediate challenge that these individuals present is disruption to the team dynamic. If that isn’t managed pro-actively the initiative would fail miserably.

Whatever the reason that individuals find themselves unable to support the progression of the wider organisation clearly if people are in this space and they are key to delivering change, perhaps process or technical subject matter experts, then they must be managed. My previous blog discussed and recommended Hersey and Blanchard’s work on situational leadership and the derived model based on their work.

The kind of behaviour demonstrated by these individuals goes like this…..

  • Lip service – superficial and apparent compliance with the plan and with team efforts, whist all the time, in reality ‘doing their own thing’;
  • Failing to join the dots – sharing only information and data that has specifically be asked for;
  • Passive aggressive behaviour such as procrastination, stubbornness, sullen behaviour, and
  • Task failure – often deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which the individual is (often explicitly) responsible.

It’s fair to say the behaviours above, if they persist are corrosive to the wider team effort and will threaten the success of the initiative. There are occasions where tactical coping is required because exiting a technically essential (and not so silent saboteur) subject matter expert, right in the middle of an expensive change initiative is probably a bad move.

Over the last 25 years I’ve developed 6 rules, which certainly help overcome these uncomfortable scenarios:

  1. Roles & responsibilities: Make sure everyone, very specifically understands what is expected of them. That doesn’t have to be done in a very confrontational way. You can use the RACI(S) chart to develop project role descriptions and work them through with the team and the especially the individuals concerned. It must be said that this is not my preferred way of operating, after all it’s not ‘total football’. If a team member sees that something needs doing, it’s much better that anyone with a solid understanding of the mission should be empowered to do what it takes.  There is a concern that if you strictly enumerate an individual role then you dis-empower them. However, some situations demand it.
  2. Encourage supportive communications: When some team members are permanently sullen and uncommunicative this can ‘infect’ the team. Don’t let the team be contaminated and ensure you set the standard. Open, honest, constructive and above all regular communication is key. Set up Agile style daily stand-up/huddles because in this environment if the tone isn’t set on a daily basis, negativity can pervade.
  3. Close monitoring of the plan: When slippage is almost expected and there is little urgency, in this scenario it’s OK to say “that isn’t acceptable”. Do this by physically looking at and reviewing the plan with the team every day.
  4. Understand the political dynamic: It’s a fact of life that leaders of change are briefly dropped into organisations where the mid and senior managers may have worked together for a long time. You must try and understand the internal political dynamics. Where possible make sure that you have top level support and sponsorship in terms of your leadership role. If you’re not empowered from the top, then the job becomes dangerously difficult. Be careful who you share the difficulties with, not everyone will appreciate your candour.
  5. Don’t get dragged too far into the technical detail: It’s easy to get distracted by the detail. If you’ve a technical background and generally love of all things technical you can be blinded. Maintaining a ‘helicopter’ view will prevent you from only seeing complexity, where most often a simple solution is the most appropriate. Focus on solutions.
  6. STAY POSITIVE: Above all don’t let the negativity and the minor politics impact on your positivity. The team expects you to be confident in the plan and to brush aside seemingly major issues and plan for success – positivity wins through every time.


Published by Pete Wilson

Pete has worked in the technology and business change space for over 30 years. He's worked globally for large public sector and governmental bodies and for large private sector multinationals across numerous industry sectors.

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