Dealing with difficult people
Does the difficulty lie with the subordinate or her boss?
It is not always clear when there are undeclared feuds in the office whether it’s the fraught situation causing short tempers to flare up, or simply a case of clashing personalities. Sometimes, bosses and subordinates do not get along. When the boss cannot specify why he finds a subordinate difficult to work with, he becomes vague — “she’s got an attitude problem.” This sweeping assessment is dropped like a stealth bomb — nobody knows where it came from or where it seems to be headed. It doesn’t show up in the radar screen and does its damage without a trace.
When required to give specifics in terms of goals missed or metrics failed, the performancerater is hazy. He unleashes a flurry of qualitative jabs. She is temperamental. She is very negative and doesn’t seem to have the right spirit. She’s not a team player. She never attends unscheduled meetings called at the last minute. And in a moment of inspiration, the employee with an attitude problem is dismissed as a “Prima Donna,” even when she has no operatic ambitions.
Can someone characterized as a “difficult person” bloom as a high performer when re-potted and made to report to somebody else? Is attitude sickness merely a case of a superior preventing a particular subordinate to shine? Does the difficulty lie with the subordinate or her boss?
One of the lessons I learned from a former boss and friend is his dictum that a good CEO must be able to manage difficult people. He himself hones this skill by recruiting a number of highly paid bulls-in-a-China-shop types, as if to prove his point. These bulls or bullies bring their own china shop to break just for practice. That nobody else in the team can work with these Visigoths seems only to hearten their recruiter, as if to prove that only he can make them do a tap dance. Eventually, the CEO recruiter himself gives up and dismisses the tea-cup-breaker as not being able to meet his targets because he lacks “people skills.”
The X-factor that judges of talent contests are looking for is summarized as “attitude.” This can be an aggressive way of performing or out-of-thebox responses to routine questions. Sassy is cool. And many a rising star hoping to extend a career beyond showing tattoos in unusual places will give provocative reactions to baiting judges — you should learn Tagalog or quit. Talk show hosts welcome some feistiness in interviewees for ratings. The subject comes across not as a dumb sexpot, but a working girl with scripted smart ass replies, making her more interesting than she probably is.
An attitude problem actually helps a career in entertainment. (I will expose the secrets of your family.) By affecting cheekiness, a bold star past her prime can end up as a talk show host previously known for refreshingly frank observations bordering on the vulgar. Her stint as interviewer using the same irreverence works as it discombobulates guests with her what’s-the-real-score approach on answers prepared by spin masters. ( We’re just friends and we see other people.) Her open skepticism at pat answers keeps her hosting unpredictable and interesting — but you’re now living together, right?
Difficult people can get away with arrogant posturing if they are indispensable. Thus autocratic bosses (I don’t get ulcers, I give them) are forgiven their dysfunctional behavior if they own the company or induce market hysteria whenever they launch new products. Opposition is cowed and unwilling to take on such a corporate force.
Attitude issues are generally associated with Prima Donnas. Operatic appeal is given some leeway for obnoxious demands. Huge talent combined with box office appeal (or managing the rising market cap of a listed company) allows an attitude problem to be accepted as an almost lovable quirk — he is a demanding boss who requires excellence in each presentation. (Translation: he makes subordinates pee in their pants.)
The “Callas Effect,” named after the temperamental diva known for throwing tantrums and being difficult, but continuing to captivate Greek billionaire/tycoon Aristotle Onassis, has an expiry date too. How can you trump a former iconic first lady?
When talent and appeal fade, the rules shift. The adulation (or sufferance) so reluctantly offered and always demanded can simply vanish — she was insufferable. Yes, you can say it out loud now.
From there, it is a short journey to oblivion and the all too quick dismissal of the once unassailable talent: she simply lost her voice.