Dealing With People Who Don’t Take Direction
I produced an event this past weekend when I encountered a personality type that reminded me of my salad days in corporate offices: the person who doesn’t like to be told what to do. And truth be told, who does?
Since this person volunteered as a greeter, I suggested that she stand near the venue entrance. She stormed down the stairs mumbling in earshot, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” which threw me for a loop because what was there to know? Did I not ask nice enough? So I tried to make amends. A few minutes later, I found her in the opposite corner of the entrance, sitting with legs crossed, and head down scrolling through her phone.
This was especially confusing since she had been so eagerly involved in prior meetings up to this point. In reflecting on this since then, I’ll never know why she appeared to resent my direction.
Sadly, studies report that women have a narrower band of “acceptable” behavior compared to their male counterparts in business. It’s not fair, but it’s also a researched reality.
While this is a unique consideration for women, there are heaps of other prejudices to cover everyone: race, weight, height, hair color, clothing, accents, and the list goes on and on. Ultimately, we’ll never know what triggers another’s bad behavior.
Yet closing our eyes to them also won’t make them go away. The question is: how can we better handle this randomness?
First off, let’s presume that people are trying to do good. This has helped me reframe what I usually assume in the moment as disrespectful, unjust, or defiant. Telling myself he is trying to do the right thing leaves room for some compassion despite the situation.
Second, a common thread I’ve noticed is that the more somebody is trying to impress others, the more they hate being told what to do. Because (they think) they already know. And they want to show it. Any direction otherwise is cramping their style.
Third, ask how they’re feeling. When dealing with someone who doesn’t like to be told what to do, it’s important to meet them where they’re at. They may not be honest, but you do your part by asking. Giving people space to share what’s on their mind is extremely powerful:
- How are you feeling?
- How are you doing?
- What’s on your mind?
Fourth, armed with context and some empathy, ask for permission to correct them. I know this sounds counterintuitive if you’re the boss, but bear with me. By saying yes, they are mentally prepared to take the suggestion. Or they have an out if they don’t want to hear it.
Either way, you’ll only know if you ask. Try any one of these lines:
- Can I make a suggestion?
- Would you like another opinion?
- I have an idea. Would you like to hear it?
Finally, sometimes you have to be a ninja. This means sometimes there is no time to gracefully manage a person out of their mood using the steps above. Just remember to avoid fighting fire with fire. While this is a natural reaction to conflict, it also risks amplifying the situation into a pointless back-and-forth where the loudest person may win, but everybody loses.
“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”
In my case, I knew this person well enough to know that she responded very differently to men. With time running out, I asked a male colleague to greet with her (at the entrance) and took whatever was between us out of the equation.
And the show went on.
In the end, the hardest part to keep in mind is not to let their problems become your problems. If you’re like me, you already have plenty. Focus on the project’s goal. Are they making your life harder? Yes. Is there anything you can do to change them? No. So, as the serenity prayer reminds us:
“…accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”