How to Deal With REALLY Difficult People at Work

Whenever I tell someone I’m teaching an evening MBA class entirely devoted to “managing difficult people” the response is the same. “Oh, boy do I need to take that class.” Or, “Why didn’t they have that when I was in school?”

There was a long waiting list for the course. Apparently the working world is full of  serious loony tunes.

Perhaps. But as we dug deeper, the issues were far more complex. With a little risk and creativity, we experienced some significant turnarounds.

We didn’t change the world, but we made a dent, at least in Washington, DC. And if you’re going to make a dent, Capitol Hill is not a bad place to start.

The biggest discovery was most often not about the other “difficult” person, but how the changer became the changee in the process. Amen.

The Power of Writing it Down

Throughout the class, we used what most would call a “journaling technique.” I disguised it as graded homework to overcome the number one issue most of us have with journaling– it’s easy to blow off– particularly when it’s hard. They submitted them online and I followed (and we discussed), their stories, techniques, growth, victories and disappointments.

You can do this technique to approach your most difficult person. I encourage you to do so, and let me know how it goes.

Here’s your homework should you choose to accept it. If you leave a comment, I’ll give you 4 points for every assignment you complete 😉

Homework 1: Why is confident humility so important in dealing with difficult employees?

Homework 2: What types of behaviors/people/circumstances pose the most difficulty for you?

Homework 3: Who is a current difficult person with whom you have to interact, and what dynamics between you create the problems?

Homework 4: What are steps you can take to change the interaction with this difficult person?

Homework 5: What steps have you taken so far, and what results have you seen?

Tune back in on Wednesday, to hear their biggest lessons in managing difficult people.

communicating to executives

The 9 Biggest Mistakes When Presenting to Executives

Executives are naturally a tough audience. They’ve got limited time, competing priorities, information overload, demanding bosses, and pressure to make great decisions quickly. Your job is to give them all the information they need in a way they can easily digest. Most of us have stories of times when the message we tried to send was not the message received, and the tidy PowerPoint presentation spiraled downward in a frenzied fiasco.

9 Mistakes To Avoid When Presenting to Executives

1. Undermining Your Credibility. The execs will only buy your message if they believe you know what you’re doing. It’s vital to show up confident and strong,

One of the smartest women I know stayed up late every night the week before her presentation doing deep research and getting the presentation just right. No one in the room knew a tenth as much as she did on the subject. But when one exec made a snarky remark, she lost it and burst into tears–tragic credibility buster. Exhaustion and too much caffeine prevented her from responding calmly and redirecting the conversation.

Other credibility-busters include weak words such as: “I guess;” “This is above my pay grade;” “You all are a lot smarter than me.” You are the expert. Show up strong.

2. Lack of Confidence in Your Own Argument. Do your homework so you can answer the tough questions well. Be confident enough to challenge faulty thinking in a professional and respectful manner. State your argument with clarity and confidence.

3. Lack of Humility. At the same time, these men and women are in their positions for a reason. They’ve got perspective you may not have. Listen carefully to really understand their concerns. Write down their suggestions. Be sure they feel heard. Know that as much as you know, you don’t know it all.

4. Unclear Objective. When I’m working with leaders on honing their executive presentations, I’m often surprised how few can articulate their primary objective. Be sure you can complete this statement in one sentence.  “As a result of my presentation she/he/they will ____________.”

5. Underestimating the Audience. Executives can often be hard to read, but there’s a lot going in their quick-thinking brains. Do everything you can to learn about the executive’s goals, competing priorities, decision-making styles, and political dynamics. This isn’t easy, but it’s a worthwhile investment. Talk to those who’ve presented in the past. Talking to key members of their team is another great option.

6. Failure to Connect with a Stakeholder. If the topic is complex and/or controversial, it’s going to be tough to get traction in a room of opinionated execs. Seek out a few key players to ask for their opinion in advance. Incorporate and acknowledge their thinking. It will show you’ve done your homework and also have a few friendlies in the room supporting your argument.

7. Boring Delivery. Its likely yours is the fifth or sixth PowerPoint deck they’ve seen that day. Spice up your data with a strategic story, metaphors, or illuminating statistics with powerful comparisons. Classic research by Hermann Ebbinghaus shows that most people forget 40% of what was said within the first 30 minutes. Be sure your message is memorable. A great, easy read to inspire better presentations is Get to the Point: How to Say What You Mean and Get What You Want.

8. Overstuffed Slides. You know a lot, or you wouldn’t be in the room. Resist the urge to throw it all up on your slides. Use clean visuals (not cute clip art) that represent your message with a few key points per slide. Always include a punch box at the bottom with a 5-7 words that articulate your main idea for that page. If you can’t come up with a punchy summarizing statement, consider if you really need that slide.

9. Failure to Ask for What You Need. This sounds so obvious, but it’s one of the biggest mistakes I see. Be very clear on your proposed next steps and what you need specifically from whom. Funding? Support from above? Communication with their organizations? Resources? Sure, some details may need to be worked out later, but be sure you can answer the question, “What do you need from us?”

P.S. I’ve been doing a lot of work recently helping managers hone their skills in this arena. Contact me if you’d like to learn more about how I could help your team communicate their ideas and results with powerful, confident humility. Santa did…just saying 😉

How Leadership Development is Hurting Your Career

“What’s the best way for John to improve?” I asked, one of those coachy-interviewing questions people like me say to bosses and peers of folks we’re working to support.

“Honestly, I wish he would just stop trying so hard to improve, and just lead. We’ve all given him plenty of advice. He’s taken a gazillion courses. He’s hired a great coach. But around every corner he’s asking for constant feedback. It’s exhausting. Besides, he can’t possibly do everything we’re suggesting all at once, so he’s creating expectations he can’t live up to.”

My advice: listen, breathe, and do. Stop looking outside for feedback.

Even the best intentions taken to extreme cause harm.

Don’t over-think your leadership. People are watching. You need feedback, and most people ask too little. And as it turns out, some people ask too much.

Signs You’re Asking Too Little

  • You have no idea where you really stand.
  • You’re blind-sided in performance reviews.
  • You keep getting passed over for promotions and don’t know why.
  • You don’t really know what your peers think about you.
  • You have no idea where you stand with your bosses’ boss.
  • Your team never shares constructive feedback.

It might be time for a do-it-yourself 360.

Signs You’re Asking Too Much

  • You keep hearing the same advice over and over.
  • You haven’t had time to really improve.
  • You’re ignoring the advice and asking again, hoping the advice will change.
  • You’re addicted to the conversation.
  • You talk more about you than about your team.
  • You’re more focused on your own improvement than on improving business results.

It’s a tragedy when leaders stop learning. Equally devastating is when leaders become more focused on their own improvement than on leading well.

How to Give a Motivational “Locker Room” Speech

The band had traveled 13 hours on 14 buses for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Now slime was falling from the sky. The 500 piece band had planned to hold their final rehearsal on the fields of Newark airport. Now they were stuffed into the Marriott ballroom. It was raining, sleeting and blowing on their parade. David Starnes, the band’s director, stood on the makeshift podium– a pile of chairs– on the far edge of the ballroom and said,

“I know this is not ideal, but sometimes you have to make chicken salad.  All eyes on me.”

As I experienced his leadership, “eyes” had little to do with it. Between songs and sets he wove in one of the best motivational locker room speeches I’ve ever heard.

How to Give a Motivational Pre-Game Speech

David Starnes on leadership (with admiration and apologies for paraphrasing).

1. Visualize Game Day

He set the scene with great detail. “Matt Lauer has just introduced us. The whistle blows. Ready stance. And we begin the NBC sequence (nice touch to call it so).” It was enough to make me want to stand at attention, and I was just there taking pictures.

2. Inspire Perfection

“I heard one early entrance and one delayed cut-off. We don’t want to be watching the tape at the banquet tomorrow night wondering– who was that?” Who would want to be “that guy?” I’m not sure if he really heard two lone stragglers or not, but the sentiment was brilliant. Everyone needed to be on their A game. No one could afford to get lost in the cacophony.

3. Invite Improvement

“Woodwinds, what ONE THING can you do tomorrow that would make your performance just a little bit better?” If I were leading he trumpet section you can bet your dingles, I’m asking that question too. Leaders inspire leaders.

4. Make it Personal

“I want this to be so awesome that Cynthia Jenkins (name changed) can’t speak because she’s so choked up.” When I asked my son who Cynthia was (assuming it was a long-time Dean dying of cancer or some such story) he shared, “Nope, just a clarinet section leader.” Everyone of these 500 music makers matters.

5. Express Pride

“I am so proud of you. You’ve got this. All those hours of practice have come down to this and you are ready.”

They nailed it. 

How to Give a Motivational "Locker Room" Speech

The band had traveled 13 hours on 14 buses for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Now slime was falling from the sky. The 500 piece band had planned to hold their final rehearsal on the fields of Newark airport. Now they were stuffed into the Marriott ballroom. It was raining, sleeting and blowing on their parade. David Starnes, the band’s director, stood on the makeshift podium– a pile of chairs– on the far edge of the ballroom and said,

“I know this is not ideal, but sometimes you have to make chicken salad.  All eyes on me.”

As I experienced his leadership, “eyes” had little to do with it. Between songs and sets he wove in one of the best motivational locker room speeches I’ve ever heard.

How to Give a Motivational Pre-Game Speech

David Starnes on leadership (with admiration and apologies for paraphrasing).

1. Visualize Game Day

He set the scene with great detail. “Matt Lauer has just introduced us. The whistle blows. Ready stance. And we begin the NBC sequence (nice touch to call it so).” It was enough to make me want to stand at attention, and I was just there taking pictures.

2. Inspire Perfection

“I heard one early entrance and one delayed cut-off. We don’t want to be watching the tape at the banquet tomorrow night wondering– who was that?” Who would want to be “that guy?” I’m not sure if he really heard two lone stragglers or not, but the sentiment was brilliant. Everyone needed to be on their A game. No one could afford to get lost in the cacophony.

3. Invite Improvement

“Woodwinds, what ONE THING can you do tomorrow that would make your performance just a little bit better?” If I were leading he trumpet section you can bet your dingles, I’m asking that question too. Leaders inspire leaders.

4. Make it Personal

“I want this to be so awesome that Cynthia Jenkins (name changed) can’t speak because she’s so choked up.” When I asked my son who Cynthia was (assuming it was a long-time Dean dying of cancer or some such story) he shared, “Nope, just a clarinet section leader.” Everyone of these 500 music makers matters.

5. Express Pride

“I am so proud of you. You’ve got this. All those hours of practice have come down to this and you are ready.”

They nailed it.