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A Leadership Secret: Appreciating the Difficult People

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

For decades, every summer, welcoming his scholarship players, Alabama coaching legend, Paul "Bear" Bryant, asked: "Have you called your folks to thank them? No one ever got to this level of excellence in football without the help of others."

Bryant did not just appreciate the importance of other people in developing a young athlete; he wanted the athletes to enjoy it too. Such appreciation is also a lesson in leadership. Nobody becomes a successful leader unless others want you to be. You need help; part of your leadership growth is recognizing and showing appreciation for that help. 

But you'll give your leadership and ultimately your career a real boost by extending your appreciation not just to the people you like and who is on your side but also to the people you may dislike: the difficult people in your life, those people who for right or wrong reasons cause you grief.  

One of the most effective ways of dealing with them is to appreciate them. I mean genuinely appreciate them. When you do, you may find that you are dealing with them in surprisingly productive ways. 

"Appreciation" comes from a Latin root meaning "to apprehend the value."  In other words, your appreciation of difficult people must be centered on your genuine understanding of the value they offer you and your organization. 

You do not just understand the view. You appreciate it, and you are using that appreciation as a tool to get as if the problems people had not entered your life. Otherwise, your appreciation, at least as far as leadership is concerned, is a waste of time.

Here is a four-step process to make appreciation a results generator.

(1) Team up. To get appreciation rolling, know that you must be a team, you and the problematic person, in its development. Mind you. You are not trying to get the problematic person to appreciate you. You have little control over the other's appreciation. You do, however, have control over yours. So, focus on cultivating yours. That cultivation happens only in a team relationship with the other person, not necessarily a personal one. You do not have to like the other person in a team relationship. It will help if you collaborate with them -- actively and wholeheartedly, leaving out personal feelings. Managing up or managing to the side might also mean managing your own personal thoughts and how they come across. Your team's goal is to forge out of the difficulties you are having with one another a leadership process that achieves results. 

(2) Identify. You are often entangled in solid emotions when dealing with a difficult person. The first thing to do is, with the person's help in a face-to-face meeting, get at the precise causes of the difficulties. Try to remove yourself from your emotional entanglements. "Break down" what is happening the way football coaches break down the plays of opposing teams by studying game films. This breaking down is a collaborative process, and it should go like this: First, have the person describe the exact moments when you had difficulty with each other. It is essential to focus simply on those moments' physical facts. What were the specific actions and words that triggered the emotions? When the person gives their side of the story, you can only give yours. Only when both of you are clear about those moments and agree on what took place can you start to talk with each other about your feelings connected to those moments of physical action. 

For instance, that person may contend you are not listening to what they say to you. Have the person describe the exact moment when you were not listening. Where were you? What was being said? Precisely, what gave that person that impression? 

(3) Agree. You and the person must agree on what is essential about your difficulties. A gap between what you think is necessary and what the other person feels must be closed. The test, in closing, is the results. Does the difficulty with the person go right to the heart of the results you need to achieve?

The person says you do not listen. Do you agree? Is that person's feeling important? Until you decide whether you were or were not listening and the importance of that, you will continue to have difficulties. This means you will not be able to go to the next, and most important, step.

(4) Transform. Transform the specific into a results process, a process that will get you increases in results. Without such a process, the earlier steps are useless. For instance, let us tell you both come to an agreement that you need to be more attentive when the person is speaking. Then, you might develop a "listening process."  Such a process may involve applying "continuers." This is a process taught in medical schools to help overbearing doctors empathize with their patients. When interacting with patients, the doctors are trained to say "uh-huh" three times when the other person is talking before saying a word. 

Of course, you can draw on " continuers " as one of the listening processes. And clearly, "not listening" is one of the problems one might have with the people you lead. Whatever process you come upon in whatever difficulty you are having with people, that process must achieve specific increases in results -- more results than if you had not used the method. 

As for the "not listening" example: You may pick out one actionable item from what was being said that can lead to results increases. I collaborated with a leader who did this.  Several people he led accused him of ignoring them; these people were bucking his leadership. They all sat down around a conference table and went through this four-step process. They developed a method to listen to one another actively and systematically and agree on what was spoken and what was heard. Then they selected actionable particulars that came out of their communication. They made sure they followed through on implementing those particulars to achieve increases in hard, measured results. 

Like the poor, the people who cause us difficulties will always be with us. No matter how experienced and successful you are as a leader, difficult people will always be lined up outside your door, wanting into your life. Moreover, there is probably the door, too, trying to cut you down to size, thwart your plans, and besmirch your reputation. 

Instead of clashing with them or avoiding them, try appreciating them. When you use this process, you may find that they are not liabilities but assets.

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