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

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!

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
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In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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