A big idea. A thirst for freedom. The desire to help others. The drive to reach your own potential. The search for a more interesting life. Entrepreneurs have so many inspiring reasons for taking the leap. But there's another, less glorious reason many of us strike out on our own: getting away from toxic people.
Here's a common scenario. You leave a job because the head honcho, or honchette, is poisonous. Your new job is wonderful. Great boss, fun work, terrific team, opportunities for advancement etc. And then suddenly, there's a new boss. Next thing you know, all the slackers are in his office, kissing his ring, taking credit for other people's ideas, and getting promoted. At this point, you can suck it up, hit the job boards, or take a brave leap into self-employment.
Unfortunately, toxic people, like flu viruses, are everywhere. As an entrepreneur, you may have to contend with shifty suppliers, deadbeat clients, passive aggressive partners, bad-faith negotiators, know-it-alls, know-nothings, slackers, whiners, liars, drama queens ... the list goes on and on.
In my career, I've also had my fair share of toxic bosses. From liars to criers -- needless to say -- dealing with difficult people at any level has its challenges. As a crisis communications expert, understanding how and when to respond to toxic vitriol is critical to succeeding in business.
Focus on the relationship, not the person.
I recently sat down with the founder of the Brilliance Movement, Simon T. Bailey, life coach, keynote speaker, and author of a number of motivational books, including "Release Your Brilliance." Bailey had some fascinating insights about dealing with difficult people.
Where we might see a toxic person, Bailey suggests we focus instead on our relationship to that person. "There are relationships that are assets, there are relationships that are liabilities, and every day we are in a relationship with something," Bailey points out. "The news we hear and repeat and what we decide to do with that. The meetings we decide to take. The phone calls we decide to have. The choices we decide to make."
Entrepreneurs are individualists by nature. It makes you bold and self-sufficient, but on a bad day, it's easy to feel like it's you against the world. Looking at your world as a web of relationships makes for a more measured and strategic perspective. It depersonalizes conflict and helps defuse anger and resentment. As Bailey points out, "Moving forward requires you to think. If you won't do the work, if you won't evaluate and decide, you stay where you are."
Exercise your tolerance.
Bailey suggests a simple exercise to help you put up with difficult people. Write down the name of someone who really gets under your skin. Then, give yourself sixty seconds to list as many of that person's negative and positive attributes as you can. "It's going to be like pulling teeth but it's also like digging for gold, " Bailey asserts. "The mere fact that you wrote all this down doesn't change that person. It changes you. It changes how you see them, how you invest your time in them."
The very qualities that make a good entrepreneur, like self-confidence, self-reliance, or self-motivation, can also make us a tad self-absorbed. "I think sometimes, as entrepreneurs, we see people as we are instead of as they are," Bailey notes. "We have to step back and say, what is right about this person? What makes them amazing?"
Celebrate the small stuff.
Instead of judging people through our own exacting standards, Bailey would have us celebrate what they do right. What gets recognized gets repeated. Entrepreneurs have their own way of doing things, but your way is not the only way. It may not even be the best way. We also tend to have impossibly high standards, but the fact that someone doesn't quite meet your standards doesn't make them a bad person.
You can't always change challenging people, but by changing how you relate to them, you may be able to change the relationship.
As a first step, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Are you stingy with positive feedback?
2. How do you communicate to them what they're doing right?
3. Can you change your tone and edit your word choice to alter their behavior or coax a better performance out of them?
4. Do you know their learning style?
Perhaps you can communicate with them in a way will make them more likely to "get it." For example, some people would rather get their marching orders in person, while others prefer a written memo they can mull over and react to.
Ultimately, some relationships will continue to be what Bailey refers to as liabilities. Those are the ones you can safely jettison. Save the hard work of understanding and getting along for those relationships that can benefit you - and your business.