Personality management strategies for leaders.

A few years ago a senior leader came to my office, closed the door, and had a little rant. Well, maybe a big rant. It was on the order of “I spend too much time dealing with personalities! I’m so tired of people not being able to get along! Why can’t they figure it out? Why do they always have to come to me? I want to lock my door! Are they grown-ups or what???? This is not a good use of my time!! You have no idea how much time I spend dealing with personalities!!!” I let the silence hang in the air for several beats. The small, vague grin on my face. “Oh”, she said. “I guess you do know.”

There are challenging aspects of leadership. Having the conversation you don’t want to have. Chairing the meeting you aren’t excited about. Explaining, again, what to you feels so obvious. Having to demonstrate patience and maturity when you don’t feel like it. Dealing with personalities. Oh my, the personalities.

Like any relationship, the most compelling thing about a colleague can also be what will eventually drive. me. crazy. And everyone else. The person who will help with almost anything and never says “that’s not my job” may also have trouble knowing when to stay in their lane. The person with the big, bold personality, so good at building relationships with clients and vendors, may not be the best at accommodating their colleague’s personalities, ideas, opinions. The person who is super laid back and works well with everyone may also be super laid back about follow through and deadlines.

People bring their personalities with them to the office. Every day. The office is as much a study in organizational psychology as it is about getting the job done. There should be little surprise the amount of time leaders spend on personality management. Think of the time and energy we spend to select our spouse, partner, roommate, travel companion, and best friend…and these relationships may or may not last. For the most part, we don’t select the people we work with or who’s on our team. Even who we report to or who we supervise may change without much input from us. It’s no wonder people who are selected primarily for skills and not personalities don’t always get along. It’s like a blind date or arranged marriage. The emerging relationships enjoy lucky compatibility, they grow on each other over time, or they end up in separation or divorce.

Personalities aren’t one thing. The confidence you loved in the interview may morph into arrogance. The organization and efficiency of a team leader may become rigid and bossy under stress. Someone you’ve always counted on may simply fall out of love with the job and become generally unpleasant. Sometimes you can ignore grumpy or whiny and they get over it on their own. Sometimes you can nudge someone back in the right direction. Sometimes you have to tell them bye.

If you lead a team or an entire organization, personality management inevitably takes up a bunch of your time. Mine too, but I’ve gotten better at it. These are my most successful strategies:

  1. Stay out of the way.

Some people will never love working together. Their personalities are polar opposite, they don’t view the world the same way, they never agree on the best solution and they get snippy with each other. I stay out of it. Sometimes trying to get people to like each other when they don’t makes it worse. They don’t need me to “fix” them. If anything, they need to know as long as they find a compatible way to work together, I’m not going to try and make them like each other. People who are generally self-aware and mature can figure it out on their own.

2. Appeal to everyone’s better nature.

When friction between two people has come to my attention more than once, it may not mend without a nudge. The personalities are often similar; confident, strong and prefer to be in control. I’ll approach whoever seems the most level-headed — at least in this instance — and ask them to tell me about the conflict. After we talk I offer to mediate or address it with the other person. Rarely does the person I’m talking to want me in it; if they do, it’s worse than I thought. Most of the time, they’ll determine by the end of the conversation how it can be resolved. The resolutions range from “we’ll talk, it’ll be fine” to “I’ll stay out his/her way for a while, but if it doesn’t get better, you may have to get involved.” All viable solutions.

3. Head on. You may not be happy by the end of this, but we gotta talk.

When a person becomes explosive or irrational or dishonest, it’s time to go all in. It’s hard to describe how much I hate this situation. These personalities often lack self-awareness and have a grinding, disruptive element. They know everything, they’re always right, they don’t listen. And yet, they have value. They’re good, or great, at their job. They haven’t always been explosive, irrational or dishonest but now it’s a mess. My efforts to ignore or intervene quietly have failed. The situation can’t be ignored any longer. In fact, when the fourth or fifth episode has occurred, I’ve waited for it too long.

The solution, hopefully, is a conversation. An uncomfortable, frank, dispassionate conversation. It isn’t guaranteed to work the first time, but often it does. It works better when I figure out the timing between ignoring-isn’t-working and today-was-the-fourth-explosion.

I keep the conversation as strength focused as possible. If the person in question wasn’t an asset, they wouldn’t still be on the team. It’s a good opportunity to remind them they’re important. But bad behavior has to be addressed and it has to stop.

There are a dozen ways to get the conversation started and none of them are fun. I used to beat around the bush, trying to build up to it. Don’t. That approach is confusing and adds anxiety. The most important thing is to say right away what the conversation is about. “There’s no easy start to this conversation, and you may be unhappy about it, but we need to talk about the way you talk to Mike. You have strong relationships throughout the rest of the office and you’re one of the strongest team leaders. It’s clear you don’t like Mike but you’re both senior leadership. I’m told you’ve challenged him in front of his staff more than once and you raised your voice to him in our team meeting today. It’s got to stop.”

Sometimes one frank conversation will move things back in the right direction. The person will concede some bad behavior and know exactly what they need to do. Or they may not know be how to change their behavior and continue minimizing its severity. In those cases, identify one or two strategies before the end of the conversation and make sure to schedule a follow-up. 

Sometimes the conversation won’t be what you hoped. The person deflects blame and becomes increasingly defensive, even argumentative. Despite the value they add, the long term wear and tear on the entire organization isn’t worth it. They almost certainly need to go.

Personality management is a business-like way of helping people get along or at least work together. They don’t always know how to do it instinctively. Almost everyone can do it with some guidance. You’re the leader. Be the guide.

Related.

Writer and metal smith/jewelry maker, Donna has lived happily as a mother, friend, creative, and nonprofit leader in Nashville, TN for more than 30 years. She is additionally committed to her cats, rock climbing, gardening and power tools. She believes that people are good, kindness is essential and artists should rule the world. Find her at BensonStreetStudio.com.
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Writer and metal smith/jewelry maker, Donna has lived happily as a mother, friend, creative, and nonprofit leader in Nashville, TN for more than 30 years. She is additionally committed to her cats, rock climbing, gardening and power tools. She believes that people are good, kindness is essential and artists should rule the world. Find her at BensonStreetStudio.com.

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