Dealing with difficult people: Beth’s story

 In Decision-making, Insights, Management, People decisions

Beth* is a sales manager in the Melbourne office of a reasonably well known media company. She’s been there for 5 years, and it’s safe to say that she enjoys her job leading a small team who have a unique offer in market. Sales are good, based on good products that clients like.

Dealing with difficult people

But Beth has a difficult person in her team. Erin has also been there around the same amount of time, and for many years they were peers, rivals even, competing to do better in their sales patch. Erin would often win that competition, and she remains the top sales person in the market. Not by a small margin: she writes a massive 40% more than her nearest rival.

Erin has a major weakness though, and it is this weakness which has seen Beth promoted to be sales manager ahead of Erin. Now Erin has to report in to her one-time major rival.

So, here’s Erin’s weakness. She has a low Emotional Quotient (EQ). She doesn’t get on with other people as well as she should. She gets easily frustrated, talks down to people, struggles to align behind decisions she doesn’t agree with. This is an open problem in the office: Erin freely admits that she thinks “culture is a waste of time”, and the other staff all sympathise and laugh with Beth about how rude and hard-to-manage she is.

A classic management problem

So, here we have a classic management problem. Someone who is a high performer in sales terms, but who is a negative influence on culture and values. What do you do in this dilemma? And how long can you let this situation fester?

This was a real problem that we tackled at a decision-making workshop late last year. Here’s how we helped Beth make up her mind what to do.

We identified that there was a lot of emotion in this decision. Difficult people tend to really challenge us because emotions like fear, nerves, worry, stress are all going to appear at some point. This diagnosis pointed us towards a specific tool to surface the emotions behind a decision: De Bono’s 6 Hats.

How to deal with emotional decisions

We had the group use 3 of the hats to examine this situation. The team put on their red hats first, to talk about their emotions towards the two options, which were Fire or Fix. Beth had her first lightbulb moment: she felt nervous about both options, both involved confrontation. But, ultimately she felt a possible sense of relief coming through if she thought about the Fire option.

Now, Beth had gone into this discussion with a gut feel that she should take the Fire option, so what happened next was pretty interesting. The group put on their yellow hat to discuss the positives of each option. And with the help of colleagues they had a robust discussion and surfaced a range of positives on each option. One stood out and was Beth’s second lightbulb moment: “if I try and Fix the situation, it provides a great learning opportunity for me, as it definitely won’t be the last tricky person i ever work with”.

The discussion finished up by looking at the negatives, with their black hats on. The group were able to get a full picture of the risks of both options, moving beyond the obvious short-medium term revenue risks and into the knock-on consequences for other people if they didn’t address the problem.

In the end, Beth was openly surprised that through a 15 minute exercise, she was able to see the problem much more clearly, eliminate her confirmation bias (leaning towards Firing), understand the way her emotions were driving her…and ended up feeling really positive about trying to Fix the situation, not Fire.

In summary

When dealing with difficult people, doing this 3 hats exercise can help you identify options, understand your emotions, and reduce decision-making bias.

Post your experiences and strategies dealing with difficult people in the comments below.

Written by Rob Pyne

*Please note that all names and organisations and some facts have been changed to protect confidential discussions