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Leadership Frame #8: difficult partners – what not to do

Posted in Culture, Leadership, Legal Profession, People Strategy, Personal Effectiveness, Values

Difficult partners are tough work. As a professional services firm leader or senior manager, at some stage you are going to be faced with the unenviable task of dealing with one or more. As I am sure you will confirm, they can be gnarly, hard nuts to handle.

‘Difficult’ comes in various shapes and forms. They can be brilliant, top fee earners who are loved by their clients but who create trouble for everyone else, or they may be disgruntled, serial under-performers.  These distinctions don’t really matter for the purposes of this article – we can probably all recognise ‘difficult’ when we see and experience it.  Invariably, as a leader you are going to come under some form of pressure in relation to them. So, it is important you know how to respond and that you actually tackle and not avoid the challenge.

Difficult partners can be hard, gnarly nuts to deal with. They come in all shapes and forms. It is important that you don't default to simply bowing to their pressure or avoiding them. Try to find the balance. Whatever you do keep the lines of communication open and a respectful relationship, no matter what. ((c) Sean Larkan image)

It is tempting, even sub-consciously, to distance yourself from such a partner. Or to go soft on them and bow to their pressure in the mistaken belief this will ‘get it out of the way’. This is mainly because most of us don’t relish conflict. These unfortunately are very common courses followed by even the best leaders. My advice, don’t follow either.

If you bow to difficult partners you are effectively giving in to the play-ground bully – the issue may subside for a while when he/she realises they have their way, but it will crop up again and bite you. Also, don’t try to get rid of it by simply ignoring it. You are then guilty yourself of passive-defensive behaviour which is a clear sign of insecurity.  Difficult partners have a keen nose for this insecurity and feed on it.  It will only be a matter of time before something else comes up. You will then be on the run with a track record of having ducked these challenging  issue.

There are some real costs involved in not addressing issues around difficult partners:

  • as leader, your own confidence will start to wane. Others may even start to lose respect for you;
  • other partners will question why the ‘difficult one’ gets the special treatment while they have to meet all firm requirements and live by the values;
  • it can make a mockery of your values and your partnership principles; they will be forever undermined;
  • staff turnover may be impacted negatively; invariably your employment brand will be tarnished; and
  • the time spent on dealing with such partners is enormous, it is exhausting and emotionally draining, which can leave little time and energy for anything else.

Fortunately, with a bit of thought, awareness, planning and preparedness to work your way through sometimes tough situations, these costs are avoidable. In fact, with persistence, patience and toughness (not ruthlessness or aggression) you can turn them around, even if it may take months or even years.

Let’s first summarise what you should not do when faced with one or more difficult partners – do not:

  • don’t simply assume that they are a difficult personality and that nothing can be done about it. Very often, certainly in regard to behavioural styles, you can.
  • respond to anger or aggression with anger or aggression, even when your patience has worn thin and you are driven to distraction. These are completely unhelpful emotions anyway and help neither party, particularly in these circumstances. This will merely paint you into a corner with no-where to go;
  • distance yourself, stop communicating or taking an interest in the partner, as much as this may be tempting;
  • avoid being tough where this is necessary, provided you are being fair and reasonable;
  • focus on the person or personality as this only makes them more defensive;
  • be vague when describing behaviours that are concerning to you or the firm;
  • fail to describe why the behaviours concern you and make it clear you want change;
  • do all the talking; this is the most important time to hone your listening skills;
  • think you have all the answers  (after all the real solution to the problem ultimately has to come from the difficult partner);
  • fool yourself that their excellent productivity, fee production or business building capability is ‘worth the pain’; it usually isn’t;
  • forget to be encouraging and supportive;
  • ignore the clear tenets of your firm’s core values to make an exception. They will be forever devalued. All staff will also be aware of this; and
  • because they are difficult, give them special treatment, when other (say) less aggressive, under-performing partners are treated firmly and put on terms.

So, we now have an idea of what not to do; no doubt you can add some ideas of your own (in which event I would be grateful if you would please share them!)

In a subsequent post I will suggest a number of things you can and should do when faced with one or more difficult partners.

All the best, sean@edge-international.com