Working with High Conflict People

Its going to happen, one day you will be working in a team and face challenges with an individual. Personality challenges with high conflict people happens in all teams and all organisations.

Some people may feel incredibly negative to you. They may always need to have the last word. Some people love to split hairs on the finer details. Other people are complainers, blamers or flamers. There are those that wont follow process. Others who will only follow process to the letter.

So knowing that we all deal with these people at different times, how can you best manage that relationship to be as productive as possible.

Avoid Assuming Intent

It is the classic mistake. You are offended or frustrated by the individual and so you already rationalise that the behaviour is deliberate, personal and it is them (not us) that need to change. Our brains have a confirmation bias, we naturally tend to look for evidence of what we already believe to be true.

The best way to avoid labelling people is to build a mental checklist. Unpack the frustrating behaviour, determine is it unproductive or just annoying.

Dealing with it

It takes two to tango… So if you are going to deal with the frustration you have to deal with your hot buttons as well as the other persons behaviour.

Dealing with Hot Buttons – You might be a team member, a team leader or an executive. We all find certain behaviours very frustrating and before you go explaining to someone else how they should change, consider yourself. This is especially true if you recognise that you are the only one finding the behaviour frustrating.

Communicating with Clarity – if the problem is felt more broadly and it is unproductive then finding a way to deal with it, (without making it worse) is important. The first point to confirm it is not about your feelings. To empower other to make change, you need to help them see that it is also important for their career. By explaining to a peer or staff member that you they need to frame behaviours inline with company values. The team culture and its performance require, collaboration and tight alignment. Explain that their high conflict style of communication or collaboration is impacting the team hitting the shared goals. Good employees are always willing to listen, work to make changes and improve performance. Especially when this is a clear step to advancing their career.

Stop Avoiding the Elephants

A former colleague of mine regularly used the following expression. “You get what you tolerate”. When you fail to speak up you are complicit in condoning the behaviour. In the article Chism explains how a colleague who regularly makes sexist or racist jokes can be dealt with. They may be high performing but if you tolerate the behaviour the rest of the team see you as condoning it.

When faced with a situation like this the best way to deal with it is to lean in. Recognise that no offense was probably intended but that others in the team could have been hurt or offended. When explained and communicated it is out of line with team culture, company values, then push for change.

Key Takeaways

  • We all face high conflict people, they key is to have a process to manage how you communicate and collaborate.
  • It starts and ends with you. Start by checking yourself to ensure no bias. Once you are clear on the issue, you need to take accountability in dealing with the issue.
  • There are techniques to minimise the conflict and potential hurt when telling some one that their behaviours are performance impacting. Make sure you have a plan before you start.
DIGEST from Smart Brief
Leadership techniques for working with high-conflict people 
By Marlene Chism
Published: 7th December 2020

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