What to do and what not to do with difficult partners was the subject of two recent posts (Leadership Frame #8 & #9). Coincidentally I came across a recent article from Travis Bradberry at Talent Smart (the EQ/emotional intelligence people) and he offered some more tips from an EQ perspective which I thought would be helpful for readers. Essentially this is about ensuring your own emotional intelligence is such that you are well prepared to deal with difficult partners. This requires understanding EQ and then having some EQ strategies you can use to assist in these situations.  I summarise some of these below with my liberal editing and annotation in the context of dealing with difficult partners.

Difficult partners, like angry babies, can at times be impossible. You need to be geared up to deal with them and not avoid the issues they bring to the firm. EQ techniques can provide some pointers.

Just like angry babies, difficult partners sometimes defy logic. While some partners may be blissfully unaware of the negative impact they have on those around them, some  almost seem to get satisfaction from being obstructive, creating chaos and pushing other people’s buttons. Either way, they create unnecessary complexity and strife and end up wasting a heck of a lot of leadership and management time.

Bradberry  (author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0) makes two important points:

  1. to deal with difficult people effectively, you need an approach that enables you, across the board, to control what you can eliminate and know what you can’t; and
  2. the important thing to remember when it comes to difficult partners, and the impact that they have on you and the firm, is that you are in control of far more than you realize.

Suggested steps:
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Some partners are downright difficult. This makes them awkward cogs to fit into the firm set-up,  particularly where they are top producers, run important clients or contribute in other meaningful ways. And let’s face it, all too often they are and do.

Difficult partners are tough cogs to fit into the system. Sometimes exit is not an option, particularly where they are highly respected for their work, client management or contributions in other ways. This calls for thoughtful leadership and management. ((c) Sean Larkan image)

It is important therefore to work out an approach you can use for such partners.  Simply leaving it to chance, or the passage of time and hoping it will go away, or that you won’t have to deal with it, is not an option. They won’t go away and are bound to come back and haunt you and the partnership from time to time. Far better to be prepared with a sensible framework, and a willingness to take action.

Too often there is something of the bully in difficult partners, and you need to be clear to yourself and such partners that you will not be intimidated into non-action. Otherwise you are sure to lose credibility in the eyes of your partners and of course will not make any inroads in dealing with the challenging partner. You also won’t feel very pleased with yourself and your overall confidence may begin to suffer. Unfortunately, the way law firm leaders and senior managers deal with these situations offer very painful and sometimes very visible tests of leadership.

In my last post I covered a few things you should not do in such situations. Let’s now consider what you should do. In the first instance, there are what I would call fundamentals:

  • make sure your values (or cultural attributes or guiding principles as the case may be) cover things like un-partnerlike or ‘difficult’ behaviour.
  • ensure your partner performance criteria measure adherence to such values and/or behaviours.
  • be consistent in all your dealings. This means treating the difficult partner no differently to others – they still need to be shown the same respect, given a fair hearing and such like. Equally, don’t treat them with kid gloves because they are difficult; other partners who may have slipped up in some or other way and been managed rigorously will be watching whether you are even-handed in your dealings.
  • be clear that the solution is going to come from the difficult partner, not from you, from the firm or some written document. Somehow you are going to have to get him or her in the right frame of mind, and suitably motivated, to solve the problem.
What else should you do?
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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;
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