Last week was the first time in a long time that I didn’t post. I went on a road trip and did not write ahead of time, as is my normal practice.
I can’t remember the last time – if ever – I have gone away for a full week without my husband or son. A few days here or there, sure, but not for this long of a stretch.
The good news is, they got along just fine without me here. The better news is, so did I. An entire week where I wasn’t someone’s wife, mother, employee or manager. One where I didn’t have to be “on” for someone.
It may not be anyone else’s definition of a perfect vacation, but it came pretty close in my book.
The amazing part was, I still planned. I still problem solved. Road trips demand it, whether it’s knowing which way to point the car, anticipating traffic and weather challenges, or figuring out stops for food and gas.
By the end of the week, I felt refreshed. Not just my energy and spirit, but my leadership skills as well. An epic road trip can teach us more than any class.
Going someplace new highlights our imperfections.
When we are surrounded by what is familiar, including friends, family and co-workers that know us, we feel comfortable. Going someplace new, our habits, speech, and interactions may or may not fit in. Strangers aren’t used to us, and may blurt out or react to our quirks. It’s a great way to learn how we can be perceived by others.
In a small Wisconsin town, a waitress dropped everything to ring me out, rather than make me wait “because you are in such in hurry.” I wasn’t in any more of a hurry than normal, but it made me realize my demeanor and approach was putting out a sense of impatience in the laid back atmosphere. I’d like to say it didn’t happen again on the trip, but have you driven in small coastal towns on a warm weather day?
Have you ever been called difficult? Felt out of step with those around you?
Maybe you’ve been told that your results are awesome, but your delivery could use some work.
If you’ve been given the difficult label, with actionable feedback to address it, that’s wonderful. Not the difficult part, but that you have input to help you get past it.
However, what if you have the label, with no actionable feedback? Then welcome home.
What it means to be labeled “difficult”
For the better part of forty years, I’ve been on the see-saw of being a highly talented “difficult person.”
I call it a see-saw because of the ups and downs. On one end, many managers (teachers, friends, family…the list is endless) love the performance. They love knowing someone that can solve difficult problems.
On the other end, they may be uncomfortable engaging with you. Or they may get the occasional feedback of someone else’s discomfort.
Depending on the person, they may think the risk is worth the reward. That whatever “difficult” interactions you have, it’s nothing in comparison to the work that is getting done.
Or, they may want to address it, but are unsure how to get the behavior to change. You may hear a lot of “You’re awesome, but…”
Hearing “but” enough times begins to kill your engagement. It makes you feel as though your output is worthy, but the package it comes in…not so much.
That was my life.
The benefits of difficulty
I’m the one friends and family would call on to solve their challenging problems. I was the “911” project manager at work, tackling any project that was over budget, behind schedule or otherwise couldn’t get done.
I also made folks uncomfortable. It was nothing overt – I didn’t walk on people or treat them poorly. Over time, once folks got to know me, we would connect. Early on, however, I’d get that difficult label thrown at me.
It was frustrating. I was honest (maybe too honest). Hard-working. I treated my teams well. I delivered.
Yet, there was always a “but.”
Leading difficult employees
Leaders get plenty of advice on dealing with difficult employees. I think the advice is mostly wrong.
Late last year, I participated in a tweetchat through #LeadwithGiants, on “Dealing with Difficult Employees.”
Was I such a chore that people needed to “deal” with me? I’m sure I was to some. Maybe too many along the way.
On the chat, I admitted to being a “Recovering Difficult Person”. I tried to share my experience, hoping to influence the perception of what makes a difficult person.
I watched the tweets fly as many leaders provided input on what they thought drove “difficult behaviors.”
None of it fit my experience.
Others provided input on how to handle those same behaviors. Too many responded that after a while, it’s time to move on.
How many of my former managers felt that way? That maybe my output wasn’t worth the effort of managing me?
The right feedback makes all the difference
I’d implore all leaders, please don’t give up on your difficult people. Especially the difficult people.
It took me many years of meaning well and trying to do the right thing. Of wanting feedback – any actionable insight – and receiving nothing but “buts.”
Until one manager was told he had to help me. He had no idea how, so he hired an executive coach.
At first I resisted. I thought she was a developmental coach, and I didn’t need one more person giving me “buts.”
Instead, she changed my life.
I used to feel like people wanted what I could do, but not who I am. Pick pick pick. But but but.
So much of what I do is tied up in who I am – my passion, my work ethic, etc. I did not know how to do what I do and be someone else. I didn’t want to be someone else.
I didn’t think I should have to be someone else.
My coach helped me see that I could be me and still deliver if I added one thing – compassion.
After so many years, I perceived that my value was in my work, but that otherwise others didn’t value me as a person.
I had stopped being human in my interactions. I was a machine – work work work. Deliver deliver deliver.
Once folks interacted with me enough, and I got the sense it was safe, a connection was established and people swore by me. But early on, I’m sure they wanted to swear at me.
Compassion as a tool to transform
Compassion has allowed me to step back and see how others perceive my messages and my delivery. It has allowed me to connect with friends, family, coworkers and customers in a way I didn’t know was possible.
The most wonderful part of this experience has been assisting other difficult people. I can help them understand how they are being perceived, as well as why. They walk away with actionable steps to transform their interactions with others, while staying true to who they are.
Unfortunately, I have met many – too many – individuals who want to do well, and are not receiving feedback to help them better connect with those around them. They are highly talented, and with a little direction, could perform even better…shedding that “difficult” label for good.
I’d like for all leaders who are losing patience with a difficult employee to consider one thing: no difficult employee is a lost cause.
If he or she is generally a good human being that means well, there is hope.
It took me many decades of struggling through work and home. Working with a coach really did change my life. Her actionable input gave me a path to transform from difficult to powerful. From machine to human.
My journey isn’t complete. Unlearning decades of behavior isn’t easy. I not only have to have compassion for others, but compassion for myself.
I try to remember that everyone starts out wanting to add value and do the right thing. Maybe they are lost. As leaders, let’s commit to helping them find their way home.
Who do you see when you look around you? What types of people are in your circles – of friends and colleagues, as well as the people you hire?
Homogeneity or Diversity?
Much in life would be easier if we were surrounded by like-minded individuals that reaffirm our thoughts, beliefs and feelings. Easier, maybe, but we wouldn’t get very far.
Diversity in our circles is what pushes and challenges us. Allows us to experience cultures, perspectives, values and ideas we might not otherwise be exposed to. It helps us lead richer lives.
As leaders, I would argue that a homogeneous circle can lead to disaster. Not only do we need diversity, we need to be very aware of our own tendencies, challenges, and strengths to ensure we balance those in our circles.
Like-minded partners can help us save time and effort
In my most recent role, I was the first to develop a certain type of strategy at a particular breadth and scale. Over the last year, other groups have initiated similar efforts, allowing me to meet a number of new people, all with similar goals as mine.
We spent a lot of time and money on our strategy, and we get more value out of it if shared. If it means other teams can reduce the cost and effort of their work, all the better.
One of these colleagues and I meet regularly and have gotten to know each other pretty well. I consider him to be part of my “common sense club” – the nickname I gave my circle. The members are those that have the uncommon gift of common sense.
While he and I get along very well, and agree fundamentally in a lot of areas, we are very different. He loves spending hours with his music. I can bury myself in writing. He considers himself slow to move, wanting to understand all the variables of a situation. I’m the first to jump at something new, working through the variables as they come.
Too much like-mindedness can create blind spots
The other day, we were talking about those differences, and agree it’s part of the reason we partner so well together. We challenge each other, with an end result that is better than if we worked independently.
We also discussed our teams. Two very different leaders have two very different teams, but they have one thing in common.
Our teams complement us.
The key to success is balance in our circle
Where he considers himself slow and deliberate, considering all the potential issues and risks, his team is more prone to action. His way of thinking about problems keeps the team from rushing into chaos unprepared.
I, on the other hand, am very fast-paced. I focus on framing out a vision and high-level plan that delivers value early and often. Looking around my team, I lean heavily towards people that can take those high-level plans and make them executable, with a tendency to slow-down and understand all the possible risks and pitfalls.
While we each have some people on our teams that have styles more aligned to ours, they are relatively few. Instead, we complement our natural gifts and challenges with teams that provide a better overall balance.
When I’m eager to move forward, he shares the risks that need to be accounted for. The issues he reveals and solves create new opportunities and capabilities my team may leverage, as intended or in a different way.
If I push forward with my organizations’ top concerns, we go through (sometimes painful) issue identification and learnings. We share those and make it easier for other teams to accelerate their plans.
As leaders, we each have our strengths, which we should leverage as much as possible. We also have our challenges.
We could spend our time trying to improve them – and to some degree that is necessary. However, there is also the option of balancing our challenges with the strengths of others by building diversity in the circles that surround us.
We’re all humans here, right? Well, maybe. While we may be more civilized than animals at the zoo, or in the wild, we have still demonstrate behaviors similar to our less civilized brethren.
If work sometimes feels like a zoo, it may be because we sense or demonstrate characteristics of the animal kingdom. Whether intentional or not, we’ve all met – or been – someone that seems to be channeling a spirit animal.
Personally, I think of myself as a lion. I’m fiercely protective of my team and family. Read on to find other characteristics of the king of the jungle, and see which spirit animal you – or those around you – have embraced.
Lions are fierce and protective of the pride (team). Familial by nature, lions can live long through cooperation or die young due to infighting. Everyone in the pride has a role to play, taking care of one another while excluding outsiders.
We all have some sort of talent. Skills that shine relative to others.
We also have the capacity to learn. What is not a talent today can become a talent tomorrow, or next week.
What we deliver is a product or service
As leaders, our job entails teaching others new skills. Getting them the training or experience necessary to go from newbie to talented. To make their greatest contribution to the organization.
Regardless of what an individual can do, often how they do it makes the difference between success and failure.
How we deliver builds up or tears down
If leaders only focus on what people can do (their delivery), rather than how they do it, what are we motivating? Individuals and teams that are all about producing and doing more.
Yet, how our people do and deliver impacts more than the end result. It influences their own work, and the work of those around them.
Production at the expense of others’ input, cooperation, or participation does not last long.
Expertise as power
It may be tempting to learn a skill and keep that skill to ourselves.
To become the best at doing something, because we perceive experts are in short supply.
The theory is, if we are the only ones that can do something, we can charge more for what we do, we’ll be in high demand, and we’ll never be out of work.
There are a few problems with the theory.
When you’re the highest paid, you are automatically evaluated when times get lean. Do we really need that level of expertise? Can we get by with someone a little less skilled for less money?
Also, the value of an expert that is the “only one” is limited to one.
Sharing power creates exponential value
But what if we can be experts that are multipliers? Experts that create more value and generate more savings, opportunities, or revenue than the amount of our paycheck?
Now we have a winning formula.