How to deal with difficult and creativity killing people

One of the hardest parts of creativity is that it’s subjective, which means it can be discussed, debated, derailed, or even killed by difficult people. We will all have to work with these types of people, and knowing how to do it successfully can be a massive part of it you are successful or not. In this episode, we will look at the 4 different personality types you experience at work, why you have to deal with difficult people, how to do it in a productive way, and what to do if it doesn’t work.

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One of the hardest parts of creativity is that it is subjective and anything that is subjective leads to discussions, debates and from time to time arguments. This means that to be successful you will need to learn to deal with difficult people. Some people are really good at this but most of us struggle to have these hard conversations or know how to deal with difficult, untrustworthy, overly political or aggressive people. I’ve personally worked with some people who were great early on but then because shockingly aggressive, confrontational and toxic later on.

In this episode, we will look at

Difficult vs unprofessional

I think we start with an important distinction as I have done in some previous episodes.



Don’t ignore them

Your situation won’t get better if you just try to ignore difficult people. As weird as it may sound I think about it like training a puppy – if that dog keeps peeing on the carpet you don’t ignore it or give it a treat because it will never change. Most people ignore it because they don’t know how to deal with it, or the person is their boss or an executive. Maybe they think that if given enough time the person will see the light and have a miraculous new way of working. Dream on.

The problem is that feeling of frustration will fester and grow over time until it becomes demoralized, quit or it all explodes. I REALLY struggle with this because I am someone who is all about trust and teamwork so when I’m disrespected, someone only thinks of themselves, kills ideas out of ego or ignorance, or doesn’t care about people it either really chews me up or I turn into someone I don’t like as a response. It is something I am working on but even this week have found myself in a situation where I am looking to the advice of my own podcast to try and help me out.

Types of people

To understand difficult people lets start with understanding that you will deal with 4 types of people at work.

Behavior: Keep quiet and don’t say what you feel. Put yourself down frequently and apologize when you express yourself.
Nonverbal: Make yourself small, look down, hunch your shoulders and avoid eye contact
Beliefs: Other people’s needs are more important than yours.
Emotions: Fear of rejection and resent those people who use them.
Goals: Avoid conflict and please others at your expense.

Behavior: Thinks any other views are unreasonable or stupid and will dismiss, ignore and insult as needed
Nonverbal: Makes yourself large and threatening with fixed eye contact and loud voice.
Beliefs: Your needs and contributions are more important and justified than other
Emotions: Powerful when you win but remorseful afterward.
Goals: Win at any expense to others.

Behavior: Failure to meet expectations through “deniable” means so you can deny personal responsibility for your actions.
Nonverbal: Mimics passive style
Beliefs: You are entitled to get your own way even after you make commitments to others.
Emotions: Fear that you will be rejected if you are more assertive with fear of being confronted.
Goals: Get your way without having to take responsibility

Behavior: Express yourself directly and honestly. Don’t assume you are correct and allows others to hold their views without dismissing or insulting them.
Nonverbal: Relaxed and casual. Eye contact is frequent but not glaring.
Beliefs: Your needs and those of others are equally important
Emotions: You feel positive about the way you treat others.
Goals: Everyone keeps self-respect without having to win all the time.

I always work to be an assertive personality. The majority of the time your problems are going to come from aggressive and passive-aggressive people. Aggressive people often only want creative to look and sound the way they want it to because they are about control. This is hard because these people think they are creating better work but they are actually short-circuiting creativity and are just making the idea weak because they are so small. Passive-aggressive probably say nothing or agree in the presentation only to play politics, stab you in the back, and cause problems because they will love everything in your presentation then work behind the scenes to get their way.

Signs of difficult people

Those two types of people have some common traits and you will find that you can even nice people who have aggressive or passive-aggressive work personalities.

Its always all about what they want and need
Difficult people focus on themselves and their ideas since their wants and needs are all that matters.
Assertive people think about the team and themselves in a roughly 80/20 ratio
Everything is you say starts with ‘I want” or “I need”.
We all say this but if you do it all the time and don’t care about what anyone else needs then that’s a warning sign.

They don’t accept responsibility
Difficult people find someone else to blame.
Assertive people will look for areas where they can take responsibility and create a solution.
“I insulted Bob because he made me angry”
“I asked John to do it and he clearly can’t do his job”

They believe their opinion is a fact.
Difficult people tell everyone their opinion is fact and other opinions are irrelevant
Assertive people understand facts from opinion and can balance their views against others.
“That won’t work”
“This is stupid”
“This is what we have to do”

Aggressive tone
Difficult people will use their tone as a way to keep others from trying to express an opinion.
Assertive people lead with a problem to be solved where aggressive people lead with their solution to be vetted.
“What do you think you are doing?”
“What the hell were you thinking?”

When difficult people can’t win they can resort to undermining everyone to make themselves look better. Side meetings with executives or stakeholders without the team there. Go around the process and pitch their own ideas.

How to deal with difficult people in a productive way

Creativity is a team sport and people will always be the biggest variable in that equation so this is something you are going to struggle with your whole career. Now like with any advice every step is going to work for everyone so you need to use this as a guide.

Start out by examining yourself.
I know you may be thinking why would this be the first step when you feel frustrated but I think it is important.
You are a part of that team so I think it is good to start here to be sure you are being open with the process.
What are the facts and where we are struggling?
What’s the story I’m telling myself about those facts?
Have you always experienced difficulty with the same type of person or actions?
Do you recognize that you have hot buttons that are easily pushed?
Start by assuming positive intent before you overreact.

Put the shoe on the other foot
Putting the shoe on the other foot means that you view the world through the lens of the person or people you are struggling with.
It doesn’t mean sacrificing your own point of view but rather widening your perspective. By doing this you can ask yourself
What is this person feeling, and in what ways does that make sense?
Where’s my responsibility in all this?

Talk about what you are experiencing with a trusted friend or colleague.
After I think about my role in everything I want to get a second opinion.
The trick to this is going to be honesty and separate the facts from our assumptions or emotions.
If you all you do is tell your side of the story and make yourself sound like you were not a part of the problem then skip this step because you are just interest in being right.
I think this sounding board can be good to try and understand both sides and do a sanity check on how you are reacting to what is going on.
Having this type of support system is critical and we will talk about this more in the next episode of the show.

It’s all about managing your reactions
As you through this process there is another trick I have learned which is to make sure with everything you do you keep the focus on the real problem.
When you act out, add fuel to the fire, bring in emotion and other things then you give everyone else including people who may be trying to help the ability to make the issue about things that aren’t what is really important.
I see this happen all the time where the central issue is lost in a sea of emotion and other problems that were added on after the initial problem.
In many cases, I want to discuss what happened but I do not want to engage in ‘he said she said’ or anything like that because it isn’t productive.
It’s about the team, our creativity, the best ideas and where we go from here to make it better.

Approach the person for a private discussion.
There are a lot of ways to handle this and I am not saying mine is the only or right way but I like to start by talking to the person one on one to give us both a chance to resolve the issue.
I like to give them every chance for us to try and find a resolution as I have found that when other people, leaders, HR, etc get involved then a lot of walls go up.
The point here is that I want them to understand how I see things, what I am going through, or how the way they are engaging is causing a problem.
Use “we” messages which focus on my team’s experience of the situation rather than on attacking or accusing the other person.
Focus on one or two things that are the problem

Keep working on it
Determine whether a follow-up discussion is having any impact.
Actions will speak louder than words every time.
Decide if you want to continue to confront the difficult person by yourself.
Does your boss support you or do you think they will help?
Like a puppy, training isn’t a one-day effort

Know when to escalate
All of this being said I also know that there are far too many times when people don’t escalate the problem, they don’t get help or get other people involved.
Many times this happens because having difficulty in the creative process just doesn’t feel like a big enough problem to make it a real problem.
But the work you are doing, the success of the company, the happiness, and longevity of your team are at stake here.

Where do we go from here?
The best advice I would have here is to have a breath, think about things and don’t react when you are emotional.
But do what you think is right.
There are plenty of people who know and recognize their impact on you but deny it, try to explain it away or just don’t care.
I always try to get to a place where we can attempt to reach an agreement about positive actions going forward.

What to do if that doesn’t work

That is all conversation and soft skill-based but what the hell do we do if that doesn’t work and the other person is still killing all the creativity?

Customer testing
Realign the source of truth from opinion vs opinion to what customers want
Be open and test their idea and yours
Don’t gloat if yours is the one that is chosen
It’s about creating an atmosphere where everyone works together, shares credit and works for the best outcome

Include them in the whole creative process
People will support what they are a part of. Most times we will alienate the push difficult people away. Many people are difficult because they are uncomfortable or afraid of the creative process because of the uncertainty in the process

Change the way you brainstorm or work
Instead of working where everyone talks break it up so each person thinks on their own and then says the best ideas. The consistency will level the playing field

Put the shoe on the other foot conversation
Another approach here is when you talk with the person ask them to reverse the situation and how would they feel if you treated them the way they have treated you and the team.

Organizational jealousy
The last trick I use if that if the person will not change and nothing is working then put your effort where it will yield results
Success is a funny thing
When you start to make other people successful, do great work, and find success suddenly a lot more people are open to trying new things and working in new ways.
Use this your advantage
Instead of taking on the difficult people head-on make them feel like they are missing out and the teams are falling behind

Final thought

Take care of yourself and your team.

The best leaders and creative talent I have ever been around, no matter how accomplished they are, are always humble.

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