The best advice I was given before my boys reached their teenage years with wild emotional swings was "don't ride the roller coaster with them.” I smiled and nodded and thought to myself, “my sweet boys are going to be the exception.” I was wrong. Hormonal imbalances are the real deal, but...enough about me.
I’m living in the parallel universe of handling teenagers and being a strong leader in the face of adversity. Both can feel like a ride you can’t wait to get off of, may make you feel unnerved, and once you've recovered, will leave you with an intense craving for funnel cakes or your carb of choice. I’m finding whether I face the difficult person in an office or a messy, disgusting bedroom, there are key strategies that work in both situations:
Shift Your Mindset
Teenagers and difficult people get a bum rap. As I stand and listen to the injustices of my son’s life, I gain perspective on what is going on in his world and where, on the vastly few occasions, I may need to improve as a mother. When implementing large-scale change in organizations, I would seek out the change-averse, squeaky wheels who were perceived as ‘negative.’ Those who voiced the loudest and boldest objections tended to be closest to and most aware of the specific impacts the change presented. Engaging them was key to uncover additional impacts that were missed and to poke holes in and strengthen the rollout strategy.
Once involved, many of the difficult people were my most successful change champions. I don’t fear those who speak up - it’s the silent ones I worry about. Similarly, I prefer an outspoken teenager to a quiet and brooding one. Taking a similar shift in mindset as a leader can accelerate alignment as you take what you thought was an obstacle and turn it into a tool to test an ambiguous plan and align the team around a clear one.
Don’t Ride the Roller Coaster
As tempting as it is to react and match the pace, tone, and “burn!” as my teenagers would say, I apply my best impersonation of a poker face and do not react. I stay grounded and listen. I stare. I breathe. I count backward. I dig my fingernails into my palms. I buy myself time to think. I know that engaging, although it feels incredibly rewarding at the time, will only take the situation further away from a solution. I remind myself of the desired outcome of the situation and do my best to stay in control.
In Getting Past No: Negotiating with Difficult People, William Ury calls this step “go to the balcony and control your own reaction.” He describes the way to mentally levitate and look at the situation objectively. Alternatively, I picture being rooted to the ground. I’m stepping off of the roller coaster to where I can watch safely from the platform. Leaders know the speaker’s primary intent of the exchange is to simply be heard. It is the leader’s job to parse out the emotion from the facts to listen for clues as to what they are after or are afraid to lose. This takes self-control and patience to master - think of progress over perfection.
Raising teenagers can make one want to be committed - but, in a different sense. In the face of adversity, leaders remain committed in their body language and in their words. During a session I was leading, an executive team member stood up, ran to the front of the room and started yelling at the team for their lack of commitment. My teenagers would have thoroughly enjoyed the creative use of language. My natural reaction was to shrink my body by clasping my hands in the front and stepping to the side of the room to stand behind my laptop as a shield. I had the presence of mind to observe my posture and purposefully placed my hands on my hips, stood up straight and took a large step into the center of the room. Strength responds to strength. I wasn’t feeling strong at this moment, but it’s important to display it before you become it.
Picture your favorite superhero and puff out your chest - find a power stance. I sometimes ask teams during quarterly planning sessions to stand and take superhero stances when they are discussing bold moves that impact their future. By taking this stance, you are releasing chemicals in the brain that helps you feel positive and the task at hand, achievable. Be bold with your words as well. Once you are committed to the plan or stance, speak clearly and evenly. Ensure you are speaking firmly with statements - not a question or an exclamation. Use powerful pauses for emphasis. Silence to allow space shows more leadership than - “!!!”
Take the Longer Path of Resistance
When my boys were younger, I would state a request and when no immediate appropriate answer or action is taken, I would snap my fingers once. My boys would appear out of thin air and quickly do or say what was needed because the snap meant I was about to go from 0 to 60 in volume. I would love to tell you this still works, but I would first have to pick up their headphone from their head or text them to get their attention. I’ve learned rather than feeding into the resistance by telling them what to do, I should take the longer path around and guide the ‘figuring it out’ process. Leaders may have the answers but know it is better to lead their team members to the solution as a partnership:
- Ask for advice. What would they do if they were faced with the similar challenge? Result? Scary report card? Refocus the conversation to collective problem solving.
- Call for a timeout. Disarm the heated moment with a legitimate break to pause the momentum and allow time to cool off and think of next steps.
- Ask more “What” and “How” questions: “What are your plans to get back on track?” “How would you go about solving this?”
Focus on Being Effective - Not Right
With every contemptuous teenage eye roll, I remember it’s important as both a parent and a leader to focus on being effective rather than right by
- Always treating a difficult person with respect
- Acknowledging the objections by reflecting back the concerns
- Reframing objectives as something to resolve as you work towards the envisioned future
- Finding ways to agree with even semblances of what the speaker is saying
- Remembering when you are wrong, the best thing to say is, “I’m sorry. I’m going to fix this.”
- Asking for commitment to each other’s next steps
What other strategies do you have in the face of teenager or work adversity?
Photo Credits: Liz McBride & iStock by Getty Images