When managers struggle to deal with difficult people

In the third of series of articles on the manager’s role in developing people Gary Wyles explores how different types of managers handle their ‘difficult’ reports.

We all know the sinking feeling when we have to confront a difficult person. Perhaps it might be that their performance has slipped. It could be that their behaviour has become problematic within the team. As training professionals, we should know how to deal with this. What is more difficult to identify is when your managers are struggling in dealing with people that they manage.

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The CIPD emphasises the importance of line managers having the knowledge, skills and confidence to be able to intervene at an early stage to nip disputes in the bud – before they escalate.

And yet these skills are often lacking in managers. In recent research that Festo conducted (People & Productivity, 2014 conduced in partnership with Works Management), we found that over one third (34 per cent) of managers suffered from stress and anxiety because of a conflict with someone they were managing.

To support our managers, we need to be able to identify how they are coping and provide support and training so that they can effectively manage their people. Part of this is to understand the personalities and characteristics of managers in our own organisations. After all, we know that those who need support the most, are the least likely to ask for it.

The avoidance manager
A common approach for managers who are not particularly skilled or trained is to avoid the issue. Instead of dealing directly with difficult people, they stick their heads in the sand and hope that things will return to normal. And sometimes they do. However, the long-term effects could be a loss of productivity and equally a loss of talented people who have to bear the brunt of unresolved workplace conflict.

For training departments, managers who exhibit avoidance tendencies can be difficult to identify. Speak directly to them and you’ll likely find that everything is rosy. Their concern is about maintaining their own professional reputation and asking for support can often be construed as a sign of weakness. Feedback on 360° appraisals and employee engagement scores can help to identify managers who struggle with the very basics of strong people management.

The critical manager
As we’ve found, for many people dealing with difficult people can be a source of stress and anxiety. Not though for the bullish manager. There’s a reason why ‘taking the bull by the horns’ is an apt description. Overtly critical and often brusque, these managers will not tolerate any type of behaviour that does not meet their exacting standards. Rather than assess the situation and think about the most productive way to handle or address an issue that has arisen within the team, they will be forthright, frequently confronting the person in public, berating and belittling them in front of their colleagues and team.

As evidence, the CIPD’s research ‘Managing Conflict at Work’1, found that line managers were most likely to be the source of bullying within teams. Training departments need to be aware of this type of management. It can shape and change the very culture of the team. However, if senior leaders exhibit similar behaviour it will often be condoned and even actively encouraged. This will require a more overt change in the whole culture of the organisation before attempting to address the management style of a particular individual.

Getting a bullish manager to understand that their approach might not be in the best interests of the company and team is tricky in its own right. Self-reflection is not their strong point and understanding that they could be the heart of the problem, will indeed be a difficult conversation. But it needs to be done. A bullish manager might meet business targets initially, but their impact on the engagement and self-esteem of people they work with means that they will often lose good people.

The micro manager
These managers will revert instantly to micro managing, when they have an issue of dealing with conflict. Instead of seeking to understanding ‘why’ someone is behaving in a particular way, they will revert to ‘what’ they can do about it.

This is often the challenge for managers who have been promoted because of their technical skills. When they are confronted with an issue that they don’t know how to solve, they slip back into their comfort zone. They want to provide the solution, so they micro-manage their team. They double-check work. They might often step in and take over whole projects.

Having trust in your team is a fundamental building block of successful management. Learning to let go and give your people the opportunity to grow and develop, and perhaps over-take you, is a sign of good people management skills. A manager who is micro managing can often point to the fact that they’re not proficient enough to delegate responsibly and coach their people to better performance.

This type of management will escalate problems within a team. Their people will become frustrated and because there will be little opportunity to assume responsibilities in terms of growth and development, there will be high staff turnover, especially of talented people who will want to take their skills where they are recognised and appreciated.

The ‘too busy’ manager
You know the type. They’re far too busy to handle ‘people problems’. However, unlike avoidance managers, they will be the ones who turn to HR and training, asking us to handle the problem for them. In our research, we found that the first point of call for 17 per cent of managers would be to ask the HR department to handle the conflict. Well, at least we know there is an issue. But now we face the difficulty of persuading managers to let go of their to-do lists and prioritise their people.

Research by Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal published in the Harvard Business Review2 found that 90 per cent of managers squander their time in all sorts of ineffective activities. Only 10% of managers spend their time in a committed, purposeful and reflective manner.
Training departments will need to put in place learning to help these managers reprioritise their workload and focus on what is really important – and much of this is about effectively managing their people and their team.

As the CIPD stated, a key role of training is to pre-empt the escalation of issues. Of course, there are situations which are frankly untenable and a more rigorous organisational decision might have to be made, but this is only when the issue has escalated and other interventions have proved fruitless. Before that, we need to ensure our managers have got the support, the self-knowledge and the skills to effectively manage conflict within a team.

1. http://bit.ly/1L0z2Cy
2. http://bit.ly/1MlOGG5


About the author

Gary Wyles is managing director of Festo Training & Consulting

Training Journal

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