Leadership Styles for Dealing With Difficult People

Are you using empathy and vulnerability as tools for guiding a difficult employee?


Rachel Sheehan, managing partner at nClued Consulting, discusses positive leadership styles for dealing with difficult people. Based on years of experience, she believes that coming from a place of empathy can actually change another person’s behavior and attitude. If leaders want their teams to be open and empathetic, they must be willing to model those behaviors and have the courage to engage in authentic conversations.

Watch the video to learn about empathy and vulnerability and the part they play in dealing with difficult team members.

So we talked a little bit about difficult people or challenging situations. There's another scenario that we often encounter where trying to walk in from a place of empathy, where you're truly putting yourself in the other person's position and understanding their feelings and their beliefs more so than their behaviors.

So understanding people's feelings is a better indicator in terms of why there might be challenges because we can dive into beliefs that drive behaviors. And once we really understand the beliefs that are occurring, then you actually can start to change behavior as a result. So being in that empathetic stance, I'm really looking to dive into, again, feeling something that you do not oftentimes hear in workplace conversations. "I hear that you're feeling frustrated," or, "I hear that you might be feeling a little scared or a little intimidated by this challenge. Tell me more about that."

As I approach these discussions, I try to find a very empathetic and a very passionate position for myself as well as for the people who I'm engaged with. So as we start to understand the passions of those who are involved, I think it helps for me to be vulnerable and to be very empathetic and to share things about myself, my feelings, so that people are able to open up and also be vulnerable along with me. So it's not me expecting them to be vulnerable. I'm happy to set the example and start there so that we both come from a place of vulnerability and openness.

I find taking that first step is usually a great way for helping people to step into a more open and a more sharing situation and, again, we like to talk about feelings because I think once you start to speak about feelings versus oftentimes you'll have conversations where there's a lot of business terminology or jargon, you can't really tell what's behind that and what the motivators really are.

So I try to lose all that as I'm in very authentic conversations with people. A colleague once said, "Rachel, you can turn a three-minute conversation into a counseling session." And I found that an interesting piece of feedback to have because all I really do is try to listen and I do ask a lot of questions. And questions, again, around feelings which... it's interesting to see people's reactions oftentimes when you're asking those kinds of questions. It sometimes takes people aback and takes them a minute to really think about how they actually feel because they're so busy thinking about the work or the task or the process and not really about the feelings that are involved in the work that they are doing.

Rachel Sheehan

Rachel Sheehan is managing partner at nClued Consulting. She previously served as managing director at Slalom Consulting in Atlanta, Georgia. Rachel is a passionate executive and an accomplished enabler of high-performing, impactful t...

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