Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 19;   May 8, 2013: The Myth of Difficult People

The Myth of Difficult People

by

Many books and Web sites offer advice for dealing with difficult people. There are indeed some difficult people, but are they as numerous as these books and Web sites would have us believe? I think not.
An adult male mountain lion captured by biologists

An adult male mountain lion captured by biologists from Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in the Griffith Park area on March 28, 2012. The lion does not look happy. This is the image of difficult people that many people have. Difficult people are innately difficult; there is nothing to be done to resolve the difficulty; and all we need to know is how to manipulate them into doing what we want, or how to evade their tricks. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Search for Difficult People Books (c4i.co/x0) at Google, and you'll find almost 500,000,000 hits. There must be a lot of difficult people out there. People have trouble with each other at work — of that there is no doubt. Certainly, there are some difficult people, and they cause trouble for many of us. But just as certainly, they are far less numerous than are difficult relationships. That's why one can reasonably suppose that more interpersonal trouble at work is caused not by difficult people, but by difficult relationships. Still, many believe in the myth that difficult people cause most of the trouble at work.

But if the myth is so widely believed, a natural question arises: What makes the difficult-people myth so popular? Here are some possible explanations.

Threat avoidance bias
Responsibility for addressing one's own contributions to a difficult relationship can seem threatening to some. The choice to define the cause of the trouble as a difficult other could be a result of threat avoidance bias.
False problem solving
Those who fear that they themselves might possibly be contributing to relationship difficulty can "solve" this problem by biasing their own perceptions such that they see the other — the difficult person — as the cause of the trouble.
A nice fit with the Fundamental Attribution Error
The Fundamental Attribution Error is a common error people make when trying to understand why people do what they do. We tend to attribute too much to character One can reasonably suppose that
more interpersonal trouble at work
is caused not by difficult people,
but by difficult relationships
and not enough to context. Modeling the source of the problem we're having with another person as a flaw in the other person's character might be an example of this error. Even if we ourselves play no role in the trouble, attributing the problem to the character of the other, rather than the situation, isn't a fruitful starting point.
No need for difficult changes
Each of us has our own unique way of thinking about the world and the situations we encounter within it. That's our cognitive style, and it might not mate well with someone else's cognitive style. When the mismatch between the cognitive styles of two different people is severe enough, they can have difficulty in almost everything they try to do together. But cognitive diversity can also be an asset. Whether it's an asset or liability depends on how the two people involved deal with their differences. Trouble can arise when one strenuously insists that others think in ways they find unnatural. Deciding that the other person is "difficult" suppresses any need to adapt one's own cognitive style to accommodate the other.

Although the myth of difficult people doesn't actually make life easier for its adherents, they do believe it. Those of us who don't must find ways of collaborating with those who do. In seeking to collaborate, it's helpful to regard the beliefs as difficult, rather than the believers. Go to top Top  Next issue: Embolalia and Stuff Like That: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenHjOMdGWLbZeEPlgSner@ChacmvDTitGxAqAjcNlNoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

A man using a chainsawDiscussion Distractions: II
Meetings are less productive than they might be, if we could learn to recognize and prevent the most common distractions. Here is Part II of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
Theatrical poster for the 1944 film Double IndemnityPolitical Framing: Communications
In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some communications tactics framers use.
John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), seventh Vice President of the United StatesImpasses in Group Decision-Making: I
Groups sometimes find that although they cannot agree on the issue at hand in its entirety, they can agree on some parts of it. Yet, they remain stuck, unable to reach a narrow agreement before moving on to the more thorny areas. Why does this happen?
The late Cameron Todd Willingham, wrongfully executed in Texas in 2004 for the murder of his daughtersAnecdotes and Refutations
In debate and argumentation, anecdotes are useful. They illustrate. They make things concrete. But they aren't proof of anything. Using anecdotes as proofs leads to much trouble and wasted time.
"Will" Rogers, humorist and cowboy philosopherQuips That Work at Work: II
Humor, used effectively, can defuse tense situations. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for using humor to defuse tension and bring confrontations, meetings, and conversations back to a place where thinking can resume.

See also Conflict Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Mistletoe growing in abundance in the Wye Valley, WalesComing April 25: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VI
Narcissistic behavior at work distorts decisions, disrupts relationships, and generates toxic conflict. These consequences limit the ability of the organization to achieve its goals. In this part of our series we examine the effects of exploiting others for personal ends. Available here and by RSS on April 25.
A shark of unspecified speciesAnd on May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenrxlWtzjnmRPbnTBoner@ChacLnjDNuyBQkpNLQsfoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.