Working with difficult personalities can dampen our ability to think clearly and make sound decisions.
As a leadership consultant who studies workplace psychology, I've spent more than 30 years helping thousands of individuals and teams at multimillion-dollar organizations navigate tough relationships.
And through my research, I've found that insecure people are often the most difficult to deal with.
Why highly insecure types can be so challenging
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While feeling insecure is natural, problematic behaviors can develop when people consistently attempt to conceal or compensate for their self-doubt.
Insecure types are extremely risk averse and unproductive. Some can be downright nasty or display abusive behaviors.
Here are their most common toxic behaviors, according to Harvard career expert Amy Gallo:
- They are overly concerned about what others think of them.
- They never express a firm opinion.
- They suffer from a chronic inability to make decisions, even when the choices have little consequence.
- They frequently try to change the direction of projects and meetings.
- They put other people down to make themselves look more important.
- They constantly talk about how busy they are (when they're actually not) to show that they are in demand.
- They are paranoid meddlers who make you question your every move.
How to handle insecure people
Insecure types — whether in the form of a team member or boss — are all around us, so it's important to know how to deal with them efficiently.
The first step is to activate your detective mindset. Turn interacting with insecure people into a learning opportunity.
1. Assess the size of the problem.
Count the interactions you've had with the insecure person. How many have been bad? All? Half? Less than a third?
You've now answered the most important question: How big is the problem? If you have more good interactions than bad, maybe the person is not that difficult.
2. Identify the root causes of the problem.
Think about the negative interactions you've had with them. What topics tend to bring them on? How do you each express yourselves in these situations?
Now think about the good interactions. What is different?
3. Cultivate genuine compassion.
Prime your mind to host positive thoughts and have their best interest in mind.
One approach I like to use is to remind myself that the that the person is somebody's child. I ask myself: "Would I like someone to have similar negative thoughts about my kids or loved ones?"
4. Over-invest in 1:1s.
A lack of one-on-one syndication is one reason why strategies fail in companies.
Have a casual meeting with them or suggest a coffee break. Use this as a forum to get to know them.
5. Have an exciting outcome in mind.
Focus on how the outcome of this interaction can create value for the other person. Ask yourself: "What would be a helpful result for them, and what reaction would I like to get?"
6. Be transparent in how you communicate.
Insecure people have a tendency to see gaps in arguments, so structure how you communicate with them in this order:
- This is what I am certain about...
- This is what I believe, but am not certain about...
- This is what I know too little about to have a view on...
7. Fill in the gaps — together!
Insecure people feel more secure when they have a strong sense of ownership. Structure the work in a series of one-on-ones where both of you should have things to prepare for each meeting.
8. Work in increments.
Lower their sense of uncertainty by suggesting a trial period, and include clear metrics for evaluating the decision.
For example: "How about we try this for three months and evaluate how it goes by measuring [X] once a week?"
9. Show that you are not a threat.
You want them to think of you as an ally, not a rival. Pay compliments and express gratitude and appreciation: "I admire what you do, and I'm excited to continue learning from you."
Stefan Falk is an internationally-recognized executive coach, workplace psychology expert, and author of "Intrinsic Motivation: Learn to Love Your Work and Succeed as Never Before" and co-author of "Neuroleadership." A McKinsey & Company alumnus, he has trained over 4,000 leaders across more than 60 organizations and helped drive transformations valued in excess of $2 billion. Follow him on LinkedIn.
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