Bill Kahn Ph.D.

The Ostrich Effect


Working around rather than confronting difficult people does more harm than good

Posted Apr 22, 2013

There are people who are utterly frustrating to deal with.  They are rude and obnoxious; brash and arrogant; directly or passively aggressive; self-oriented and competitive; entitled and high-maintenance.  We all know someone like this.  And we do our best to work around them.

These people—the "workarounds"—are only in part problematic because of their own tendencies, motives and personality characteristics.  These facets certainly make them annoying and frustrating.  But they become truly problematic because of how others react to them.  Consider a project team is having great difficulty with a member who is self-oriented and competitive.  Other members of the team—directors from across the company, none with any more hierarchical authority than the others, including the appointed project leader—are frustrated with her behavior.  Various members talk with one another about getting her to change.  The project leader decides to speak with her, to give her feedback about her work in the group.  The conversation goes badly, which the project leader reports to others in the group.  The group members decide to do their best to keep her out of as much of the group communication and work as possible.  This does little.  The offending member becomes increasingly disruptive, to the point that the project leader asks the member's supervisor to replace her on the project team.

Or consider the difficulties that the assistant director of a social service agency is having with her subordinate, a talented middle manager who comes across as arrogant, defensive and difficult to talk with.  He is thought of as bright but dismissive of others.  His supervisor has given him feedback.  She has given him direct performance reviews.  She has tried to become a mentor to him.  None of this has made a difference.  Her subordinate continues acting with little concern about how others, including her, think about him.  Once considered a rising star in the agency, the manager is now in danger of losing his job.  The assistant director involves him little in the strategic thinking for which he was hired, and lets others in the department work around him.  The manager continues his problematic behavior.

These scenarios are all too familiar in the workplace.  People like the project team member and the middle manager dot the organizational landscape.  They make work unpleasant.  Yet it need not be this way, if only we know how the Ostrich Effect keeps these individuals problematic.  What is annoying and frustrating about the team member and the middle manager became intractable by how they were dealt with by those around them.  In both cases, those around them framed them in certain ways that severely limited the options for altering their behaviors.  Both the project team members and the assistant director backed away from conversations that might well have freed the offending individuals from needing to be quite so offensive.  Problematic people are problematic for reasons; the offending behaviors that they display should properly be understood as signals that they are in some sort of distress.  When they are unable to openly address this distress, they show it in various ways, unconsciously hoping that others will come to their aid.  When this does not occur—when others work around rather than truly with them—the distress calls get louder, more insistent, more problematic.

In the Ostrich Effect people remain unaware of the distress calls that problematic people issue.  The lack of awareness serves certain functions.  It is so often the case in life that people see what they wish to see.  The question thus becomes:  Why do we wish to see individuals as the problems?  What does that do for us?  It lets us avoid looking at how our own behaviors contribute to difficult situations.  It lets us avoid conversations we would rather not have.  It lets us avoid feeling troubling emotions.  It lets us maintain self-fulfilling prophecies that justify the rightness of our own actions.  It lets us off the hook while leaving others swaying, casualties of conversations not had. 

What would it mean to re-frame difficult people?  The process begins, necessarily, with self-examination.  We need to examine how we ourselves benefit from the problematic status quo, and of the emotions that others trigger in us, as a clue to what those others are experiencing that cannot otherwise be communicated.  The steps continue with the conversations that we can then have—conversations anchored in curiosity rather pathological certainty about who others are and what they could be.

About the Author

Bill Kahn, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist at Boston University's School of Management who researches the sources of stubborn problems in work relationships, groups and organizations.

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