In the last month, I’ve taught a couple leadership classes, one on leading with cultural competence and the other on general leadership with a focus on influence and business acumen. One topic that came up in both classes – and typically comes up in any leadership course – is working with challenging people. Whether it is a challenging colleague, collaborator or customer, I always get questions and stories about people challenges. The most effective leaders are those that find ways to connect with, convince, and/or engage even under difficult people circumstances. I want to share a few ideas/concepts that can be helpful in these situations.

The first is an adage I’ve seen in several books and presentations and simply states “meet people where they are.” I’ll start by saying this does not mean “agree with them” or “agree to their terms”. It suggests some perhaps obvious questions that, in times of challenging situations or tough negotiations, are often forgotten. These include:
– What is the person’s position or belief?
– Why are they taking that position? Is it reasonable?
– How can I connect with and/or engage them?
– Can I/we find a satisfactory solution, compromise or alternative?

Getting to the first two may require talking with the individual (or individuals) as well as talking with others on the team or project. The person with the different opinion, approach or idea, is likely grounded by their beliefs, experiences, technical understanding, their view of benefits/consequences, or some other perspective (political, emotional, operational). Whatever the reasons, it is the leader’s job to figure that out. Next, re-assess your position. Knowing why they believe what they believe, does this change your perspective, belief or approach? In some situations, you may have no choice but to change. In others, truly understanding their perspective and position may provide a win-win possibility for both sides.

Let me provide two examples, first a situation where the leader had to change their position. This was a technical problem shared by one of our guest lecturers speaking about influence, which involved a legal case. I won’t go into excruciating detail, but the leader, who happened to be a statistician, had to convince the judge that the statistical approach to assessing and resolving an issue was fair and appropriate. The judge had no deep, quantitative expertise as their role did not require it. The best approach from the statistician’s standpoint was to model the data under certain assumptions. Knowing that the judge wouldn’t be able to grasp the technical aspects and might reject the approach, the statistician had to settle on a simpler approach that was not optimal but still acceptable. (For statisticians needing to know, the optimal approach was using a lognormal distribution to study and analyze continuous data, but the statistician/leader settled on a binomial approach as the judge was able to grasp the notion of “either it meets the standard or doesn’t”.) In the end, the approach worked and the judge reached the conclusion desired by the statistician and their organization.

The second example is more a people situation from my own experience. In one of my management assignments, through a re-organization, I took on some additional responsibilities for a small group of statisticians. The supervisor for the group was initially resistant and evasive with regard to providing details of projects and collaborations. Now, one might think, “You were their manager. You had the authority to demand such information.” Perhaps so, but that could create animosity and distrust and not truly win their hearts and minds. What did I do? I asked the supervisor to dinner at a restaurant of their choosing and there we talked for about three hours. In that time, I came to understand the group’s situation and that they were fearful that I would make changes and might “micromanage” the group on how they collaborated and conducted projects. I was also able to discuss my leadership philosophy with the supervisor and indicated that as long as projects were being completed in a timely and appropriate fashion and that the group’s collaborators were happy, I would not change what was already working. Eventually, the supervisor was much more forthcoming, offered details on projects & approaches, and readily engaged me in technical debates and project issues. In my opinion, we both won.

More on this topic next month …