The Difficult Person

We all work with a difficult person (& we are someone else’s difficult person from time to time as well!)

Difficult people at the core have a certain, natural personality type, but then due to their lack of maturity, unresolved complex past, or being placed in a situation that doesn’t match their giftedness, this personality type becomes skewed and bent.

For example, take a strong willed and self-sufficient person and mix that with an unresolved complex past of abuse, they can become a hostile taskmaster. Take an easy-going, calm, introvert that lacks maturity, and you have a perfect passive-resistor. Take the analytical perfectionist and put them in a situation that doesn’t match their giftedness, they become the constant complainer.

So, do we just ignore these people we work with? I mean, hey, if they get the job done, then doesn’t the “end justify the means?” …Maybe not.

In a study from Harvard Business Review, they found that when employees are given three types of people to work with on a project (these choices being the lovable star, the lovable fool, or the competent jerk) they naturally choose the lovable star. However, with a choice only between the competent jerk or lovable fool, the majority would choose the lovable fool.

The writers state, “Ask managers about this choice—and we’ve asked many of them, both as part of our research and executive education programs we teach—and you’ll often hear them say that when it comes to getting a job done, of course competence trumps likeability. “I can defuse my antipathy toward the jerk if he’s competent, but I can’t train someone who’s incompetent,” says the CIO at a large engineering company. Or, in the words of knowledge management executive in the IT department of a professional services firm: ‘I really care about the skill and experience you bring to the table. If you’re a nice person on top of that, that’s simply a bonus.”

The study goes on to say, “We found that if a someone is strongly disliked, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people won’t want to work with her anyway. By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer. And this tendency didn’t exist only in extreme cases, it was true across the board” (Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo, June 2005, HBR).

So in a world where we tend to put up with the competent jerk, because “he or she gets the job done,” we have to realize their behavior can’t be ignored. Though they may be personally productive, they are hindering the productivity of the entire organization.

Stop ignoring or excusing them, and begin responding to them. Take the servant leadership approach of coaching them in their areas of weakness, bringing them to a better place maturity, and making your organization more effective.


~ by Dave Smith on March 13, 2008.

2 Responses to “The Difficult Person”

  1. Often we get so used to the competent jerk, and are afraid that his replacement might be less competent, that we keep him around long after we should have fired him. Or, under the guise of “grace” we let the organization suffer through our redemptive efforts toward this one person.

    The reality is that once he is gone, the entire organization sighs with such relief that often his competency isn’t missed at all—turns out there are others in the organzation that step forward with those same skills.

    Bill Willits @ NPCC calls it the “caller ID” test. When you see a colleagues number come up on your cell phone, do you cringe as you answer the call (or let it go into voicemail)? If so, it might be time to make a personnel change.

  2. Great comments Rich. Love the caller ID test. Although, with me not being the greatest “people person” I tend to cringe no matter when the phone rings! :>)

    But understand the point, and it is a good one!

    Love the comments about how other people step up. Never thought of that, but a definite reality.

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