Mind of the Manager

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How to Manage Someone You Don't (Truth Be Told) Really Like

The path of least resistance isn't always the path to productivity.

As managers, we tend to like to work with people who agree with us, who are easy to work with, who don’t directly challenge us. While this is natural, it’s not always optimal. The path of least resistance isn’t always the path to most productivity.

This line of thinking was brought to mind recently when I retweeted a brief Harvard Business Review Management Tip on “How to Manage Someone You Don’t Like,” describing concisely the need to keep in check your own frustrations and biases when managing in such circumstances. (It was based on a longer article of the same title from this August by HBR Contributing Editor Amy Gallo.)

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I had a quick inkling this was a resonant subject, as within a minute of my HBR tip tweet, I received a tweet back from a manager in Lagos, Nigeria: “this is nice becoz it will improve the quality of our leadership.”

Hard to argue with that… and it made me think about my own experiences in this realm over several decades of management. First off, I’d say there were very few people out of all those I’d managed whom I could really say I didn’t like. Full disclosure: I’m by nature a consensus-builder, tend to get along with people, not seek conflict. I’ve always loved team sports, big believer in the power of teams in business, feel little of substance is accomplished in a large organization without complex collaboration. But that said, notice I still said very few people I didn’t like, not none. Accordingly, my modest contribution to the management topic of liking and disliking and dealing with it.

So if you find yourself in this difficult bind – managing someone who’s a capable employee but you’re genuinely not liking – how should you approach it? (It’s important to say “capable employee,” since if the individual is a weak performer and not liked, odds are his or her stay in the role won’t be a long one.) My suggestions:

Accept it, it’s just human nature, accept the inevitability of interpersonal conflict – Don’t agonize or beat yourself up over it, but assume in the normal course of human events this is a normal occurrence… and look for constructive openings rather than dwelling on negatives.

Recognize this is business, not pleasure, and drain the emotion out of it – As I used to tell my employees during especially hard and irritating assignments: “Hey, that’s why it’s called work, not play. If it were play, we wouldn’t be getting paid for it.” Remember these are business relationships, not friendships. Even turbulent business relationships can yield business benefits. Compartmentalize.

Try as best you can to see things through the eyes of others – Always a ‘best practice’ in management and life. No one’s perfect; all of us of course have faults. It’s entirely possible some of the fault in a fractured relationship is yours. Might there be aspects of your behavior that are causing an employee to relate to you in persistently frustrating ways? Might such perceptions be legitimate? Indeed possible.

Recognize that creativity and innovation are often byproducts of tension, conflict, stress and agitation – This is the most important point, with the most organizational upside. Right, wrong or indifferent, when I reflect back on some of the biggest management-employee conflicts I had (and witnessed), they were generally with the brightest individuals. Who also were the most cantankerous, invested, and ultimately capable of the keenest product and consumer insights. Which generally resulted from considerable discussion, debate and struggle before solutions were found. Was I always happy with the person or the process? No. But was I often pleased with the end results? Unquestionably.

Not all difficult people are talented, and as a manager you want to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff and not squander your finite mental energy unnecessarily. But some of the most talented people I ever met in business were also the most difficult. They contributed a great deal in terms of creativity and critical thinking.

They weren’t easy, but the road easiest traveled doesn’t always get you where you most need to go.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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You can follow Victor on Twitter for management-related news, tips and articles.

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Victor Lipman recently retired from the corporate world after 25 years with one of America's largest life insurance companies. He writes about management from a psychological perspective.

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