While there are many challenging aspects when it comes to leadership, one that typically rises to the top is dealing with difficult personalities. As the saying goes, it’s typically the 1% that gives you 99% of the problems. Some people might take offense to the previous statement. Still, if you read it carefully, it sends a powerful message that most people possess a personality that is open to aspects we hold dear, such as collaboration, communication, innovation, and other elements essential for change. The reality, though, is that some personalities represent an entrenched mindset that is fixed. While this can be frustrating, we must remember that they are people. John Kenworthy provides an important reminder:
Yes, they come in all shapes and sizes, races, genders, and from all backgrounds, and they share two things in common: The first important thing they all have in common is that they are all “people”. We are dealing here with human beings. And we know from neuroscience that human beings share very much more in common in what drives them and causes these behaviors. The second thing they have in common is you. If you’re reading or listening to this, then you have one or more people in your life whom you find difficult, and you want to know how to lead them or simply deal with them.
Difficult personalities can represent energy vampires where all your time, patience, and resources are sucked out trying to deal with them. The key is to separate the personality from the person as a way to unearth what the underlying problem might be. Below are some ideas that can help you tackle these challenges constructively.
Identify the cause of the issue(s)
There is always a trigger or reason for a problematic personality. Whatever that might be, discovering the root cause is essential to proactively address the situation so that it doesn’t further impact the culture of your school or district. Try employing an empathetic lens, as difficult as this might be, to try to uncover the cause of the problem.
Keep Your Cool
While this is often easier said than done, allowing the difficult personality to get the best of you can have a domino effect that negatively impacts the rest of your staff. Begin by staying calm and avoid getting defensive. Listen as opposed to reacting as this process will take time. Preparing for any conversation before communicating with a difficult personality is also an excellent practice. If possible, do this in a private setting face-to-face. In the event that the meeting begins to veer out of control, table it for another time.
After identifying the issue and having a direct conversation with the person who possesses a difficult personality, it is crucial to know when and how to leverage available supports to ameliorate the situation. Seek out perspectives from unbiased colleagues, reach out to other leaders for advice, or research how other fields address these same issues. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. In the end, the simple task of leveraging supports can be the best tool you have to fix the issue.
Understand when enough is enough
While the best course of action is to treat people fairly and with respect as a means to root out the difficult personality, the fact remains that this might not work. At this point, you might need to refer the issue to your respective boss or use the contract for disciplinary purposes. As a principal, this was the worst part of my job, but in some instances, it was unavoidable.
Dealing with difficult personalities doesn’t just fall on administrators. All educators, at some point, find themselves in a situation where issues with colleagues have to be resolved as they represent a challenge to the overall culture. The same advice above can be leveraged so that the energy vampires don’t succeed. While not easy or comfortable, dealing with difficult personalities is all of our responsibility.