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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.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:

The Johari WindowAssumptions and the Johari Window: I
The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's assumptions are.
President Richard Nixon resignsObstructionist Tactics: I
Teams and groups depend for their success on highly effective cooperation between their members. If even one person is unable or unwilling to cooperate, the team's performance is limited. What tactics do obstructors use?
Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1846, in a charcoal portrait by artist Eastman JohnsonA Critique of Criticism: II
To make things better, we criticize, but we often miss the mark. We inflict pain without meaning to, and some of that pain comes back to us. How can we get better outcomes, while reducing the risks of inflicting pain?
The flagship store of the Market Basket supermarket chainCreating Toxic Conflict: I
Many managers seem to operate as if their primary goal is to create toxic conflict among their subordinates. Here's a collection of methods for sowing toxic conflict that can help bad managers become worse managers.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), Speaker of the U.S. House of RepresentativesGrace Under Fire: IV
People can be astonishingly inventive when trying to harm others. Some strategies involve driving to distraction the target of their malevolence by humiliating the target and lying about the target's character, deeds, or abilities. Targets who recognize these methods are more likely to be able to maintain composure.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesComing October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.
Ecotourists visit an iceberg off GreenlandAnd on November 3: Way Over Their Heads
For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.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 500-1000 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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. 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 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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.