The Art of Project Management: Expert advice from experienced project managers in Silicon Valley, and around the world

Difficult People – not!

yinyangDifficult people. I really don’t like that term.

Think back… haven’t all of us been perceived as “difficult” at least once or twice (or, like me, often)? Were we really being difficult? From our own perspective, did we not have important reasons for taking our position? Perhaps it was because our team was moving too fast and was increasing the chance of a serious oversight. Or, perhaps we had experience that was being ignored in favor of an untried methodology. Or… well, we all have our stories.

My point is that the vast majority of “difficult people,” in my experience, were doing something they felt was quite reasonable – in just the same way I sometimes had to go against the stream.

For me, it’s been useful to think in terms of difficult situations involving people rather than difficult people. Maybe that seems overly semantic, but I don’t believe so. Language can be tightly related to perception – and perception is our reality. I believe it’s easy to demonize a difficult person; maybe even justify a less than ethical behavior on our part. Also, the difficult label might lead us to try to “fix” the person. Anyone remember how it feels to be “fixed?”

So, let’s think about the difficult situation instead. What’s actually happening? Describe the behavior, not our reaction to it. Sometimes, just going through this process allows us to see something different.

I remember an engineer that was always challenging me in meetings. GRRR! He was so difficult! I talked about killing this guy with a buddy. She asked me what exactly was happening. “I was talking about the proposal. He interrupts me and says, ‘So, your first two points are…’ “ Then, she asks, “what was it about what he did that bugged you so much?” I had to stop and think. Looking back, I just hated the interruption – I had prepared and was on a roll and this guy butts in! Oh-oh… this guy was actually slowing me down when I was on a roll (in my mind) and I was probably going too fast. Ah. I still didn’t like it. When I talked to him about it (calmly, of course), he laughed (I nearly smacked him then). He explained that he just assumed I understood the importance of emphasizing important points. We eventually became good colleagues (one technique was for him to hold a pen in both hands, which was a signal for me to slow down… and sometimes he would still have to interrupt me!).

Here’s what works often for me with a “difficult” person:
1) Mantra: “He/she is not a difficult person…” – repeat until calm.
2) Describe what happened – the behavior, not the reaction.
3) What, specifically, rubs the wrong way.
4) Why?
5) Imagine what the “difficult” person saw/experienced.
6) Reconstruct the difficult events with an alternative explanation.
7) Based on (6), devise solutions (or accept the situation).
8) Test the solutions, revise as needed.

OK, I do realize that it’s not always so simple. On the other hand, it may be easier than dealing with demons.


About the Author

ALAN TSUDA founded and is a principal in two Silicon Valley based consulting firms; Altapoint Learning and ResultWorks. Mr. Tsuda is also an instructor in project management for the University of California Extension in Berkeley and Santa Cruz and is the master instructor for the instructional design program at UCSC Extension. Previously, Mr. Tsuda was a consultant and project manager for several firms designing and building large computerized systems for clients including the state of Maine, General Motors, General Electric, Doubleday Books, and Warner Communications. He managed product development and consulting services for a start-up software company that was spun-off from MIT and ran a systems integration division for a large computer products distributor. Mr. Tsuda earned an MBA from the Yale University School of Management where he tutored in finance and quantitative methods and was a teaching assistant in organizational behavior.
Creative Commons License
Note: This work and all associated comments are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Leave a Reply