Dealing With Difficult People

Knowing ways to protect yourself against those who might undercut you can be crucial, writes Larry D. Lauer.

October 16, 2015

I once witnessed a president’s spouse whose involvement in internal operations disrupted and confused the staff. She had been a public relations executive in a prior life, and an unwitting trustee made a comment when her husband was hired that made her think she had an open door to get involved in university communications. Part of her self-justification was that her husband’s reputation as an innovative leader was at stake and she believed that she possessed the necessary expertise to help. In fact, though, her actions paralyzed the staff, who had no idea how to deal with the problems that resulted. Eventually, the head of communications departed.

Sometimes political situations like this play out awkwardly and are never completely resolved. Any time trustees, donors or high-level stakeholders like this spouse insert themselves in operations, things can get difficult. As an experienced manager, I now know that you have to be on the lookout for potential problems and work on bringing troublesome people under the tent well before they can do serious damage.

In cases involving interfering trustees, for example, I tell them early on that I would like to have their input and make sure they get to know me well enough to have confidence in me. My goal is to let them know in advance exactly what I do and assure them that I’m always in search of good ideas. In my experience, I have found that if I listen to them intently, I can use what is helpful and often pretty much ignore the rest. And all is likely to be fine in the end.

But if you’re a manager with limited experience and an important trustee or other constituent starts closely questioning what you’re doing, the situation can turn ugly. Looking and sounding defensive may end up reinforcing the constituent’s suspicions. All of this is to say that knowing the kinds of political minefields to anticipate before you get into a new position of responsibility makes all the difference. So does knowing ways to protect yourself against those who might undercut you.

Two kinds of difficult people whom you may encounter, among others, include:

The overzealous gatekeeper. The job of the chief of staff is to help the president or head of program coordinate his or her schedule, which often translates to shielding the boss from needless interruptions. But you may occasionally run into chiefs of staff who create more problems than they solve. Some relish the role of powerful gatekeeper so much that they turn into destructive barriers. They can make even vice presidents feel they can’t get in to see the boss. In this way, chiefs of staff can actually set themselves up to be in charge.

With experience, executives can learn how to bring this kind of situation to their boss’s attention. Good possibilities include: 1) asking the boss for a direct way to make contact and assuring him or her that it won’t be misused or 2) collaborating with peers and talking with the boss as a group about the problem. At times, I have also been able to cultivate improved relationships with some chiefs of staff so that they will help me when I ask. But without a doubt, standing up to this can be an intimidating challenge for the new executive, who may eventually feel and act subordinate to such an aggressive chief of staff. When this happens, the new executive’s effectiveness can be severely undercut.

The all-too-knowing chief financial officer. Powerful chief financial officers can also be a potential source of political problems. Because CFOs know so much about institutional budgets -- sometimes even more than presidents -- it’s easy for them to become fairly directive.

To head off problems, experienced senior administrators know they need to learn as much about the budget as they can, including where any discretionary money may reside. They also realize that it’s better to be the CFO’s friend than adversary. Mutual respect should be the goal; a poor relationship, or being forced to work with a CFO they can’t really trust, will become a serious problem. But experienced professionals also know they cannot afford to let the CFO intimidate them. All executives must hold their own in whatever budget process exists, even when -- as is usually the case -- competition for resources is quite fierce among those on the president’s council.

Dealing with internal politics requires a combination of strong connections with the right people, planning, common sense, patience, persistence and hard work. Here’s a step-by- step process for using all of these while handling a political challenge the way you would a successful grassroots political campaign.

Clarify your situation. What exactly is the goal you want to reach, and what are the political problems you have to solve in order to achieve it?

Identify key opinion leaders at all levels of your institution. Then classify them as your goal’s supporters, detractors or neutral parties.

Set up processes to activate your supporters on your behalf. Also work to educate your neutrals in preparation for asking them for support. Ignore your detractors. For now, focusing on them will only slow you down. Your supporters plus increasing numbers of neutrals will likely add up to a critical mass large enough to get things done.

Engage a third party. If a problem person stands between you and the goal, select from your list of supporters the third party who is best positioned to help you gain traction with the troublesome individual. Cultivating these influencers is well worth your time. Meet with them for coffee or drinks. Buy their lunch or dinner. There may be quite a few possible third parties when you take into account all the deans and other departments you deal with. Chosen wisely, they will be your most effective political tools. If your problem person is a manager or executive, identify the person’s leadership type and clarify his or her behavior and emotional characteristics. Then, ask:

  • How can you take that person’s emotional needs into account?
  • What’s the best way for that third party to help you with him or her?
  • How and where can you educate the person about what you do?
  • Can you make a deal? What is the person’s pet project? How can you help with it?
  • Alternatively, is it possible that you might just ignore the person and move on?

Focus your internal education initiatives on the neutrals. You want them to learn your point of view even as you come to understand theirs better. Invite neutrals to serve on committees. Ask to visit their staff meetings. Offer to participate in their new employee and faculty orientation meetings. All this takes time. But this effort, too, is well worth it.

Finally, you should be ready to make win-win deals. When you need something from supportive colleagues and administrators, find out what they want to do and offer your help in exchange for theirs. Sometimes you will give up something in order to get something. But this is how politics -- inside and out -- almost always works. With all this grassroots work accomplished, you should be well on your way to winning the needed support to achieve your goal.


Larry D. Lauer is a vice chancellor emeritus at Texas Christian University and the author of The Transition Academy: Seizing Opportunity in the Age of Disruption, published by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.


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