True Growth - The Natural Choice in Leader Development
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The Question I
Get Asked The Most

Vinny Boles

August 2014

Being a professional speaker on the subject of leadership is a great way to make a living and as a side benefit you meet an interesting cast of characters on a regular basis in some great locations.

The question I hear most often in the Question and Answer session is "How do I work with (or handle) a bad boss/employee/subordinate?"

You can sense it REALLY bothers the questioner, but the setting and time constraints usually limit my response to a few bromides that leave neither me nor the questioner satisfied. So let me try it now at 36,000 feet in seat 12B and see what I come up with.

First, it's important to define "bad". If it's illegal, unethical, immoral or unsafe behavior then it has to be addressed and elevated to management. Otherwise you become an accomplice.

So let's assume that we are not addressing that behavior, rather we are dealing with folks who are difficult to work with and/or uncomfortable to be around. They are a "pain".

It's a fact of life that not everyone can get along with everyone, however, I have observed that some folks "get along" better than others and I have seen them exhibit a few skills that are worth sharing.
  • They put themselves in someone else's shoes before they respond. Put another way, they don't make it all about themselves. They really take the "pains" point of view and look at their world from where they are sitting. This new perspective often (not always) aids in rectifying the perceived negative behavior. (For example: "I didn't realize how overwhelmed Judy feels, we didn't give her a full orientation; we just threw her in the deep end. No wonder she is so snappy and short with folks"). After reflecting you may or may not choose to share this perspective you have with the other party.

  • When they address it with the other party they pick a time and place that is unemotional. They don't address it when they are upset and/or are in a public setting where it becomes a win vs. lose event and the audience gets to pick sides. I have observed that they schedule an appointment with the other party and they have a fact-based discussion "Here's what I am observing", "what am I missing?", "can you help me clear this up?" are examples of the tone I observe.

  • They listen, really listen. They come to the interaction waiting to listen vs. waiting to talk and are patient to the extreme. It requires a suspension of their agenda and they do it to learn something instead of trying to win an argument and attack the other party.

  • They offer themselves up by making it about themselves not the other party. They come to the interaction with a "can you help me?" perspective instead of a "what's wrong with you?" attitude. That has the effect of lowering shields and engaging the other party in a helpful conversation intended to help you.
These 4 techniques can be helpful but not a panacea. There is a reason that divorce rates are so high. Some folks will be too difficult to deal with. In that case if it's a boss, you'll need to do a business case analysis to see how bad it is and if it's really that bad, develop your exit strategy. If it's a subordinate employee, you'll likewise do an analysis that ultimately analyzes their value added to the firm vs the negative behavior. As my Dad used to say about cooks in his restaurant "Is that great steak they make worth putting up with this other stuff?" Sometimes it was. Often it wasn't.

Then you have to take the view that the negative performer is taking up someone's dream job and you need to go find that dreamer.

As a leader it may help to remember that when you have all the facts in front of you, you don't have a problem to solve. You have a decision to make.

True Growth Takeaway: Prior to "solving" a conflict, seek first to understand the other person's perspective.

Journaling Reflection: What one behavior can you improve to better resolve conflict in your professional life?

About the author: Vinny Boles is the President of Vincent E. Boles Inc, a Leadership and Logistics consulting practice in Huntsville, Alabama, founded in 2010 after completion of over 33 years of military service to the Nation. He held leadership positions at every rank through Major General in our Army to include five consecutive years of service as a Commanding General after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. He culminated his service as the Army's Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff, G-4 in the Pentagon. He holds a MBA from Babson College and BA in History from Niagara University. In 2011 he was inducted into the Niagara University ROTC Hall of Fame and the US Army Ordnance Corps Hall of Fame. He is the author of 4-3-2-1 Leadership… What America's Sons and Daughters Taught Me on the Road from 2d Lieutenant to 2 Star General.

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