Leadership Effectiveness: The Gift of the Difficult Direct Report

Leadership Effectiveness: The Gift of the Difficult Direct ReportEvery leader at one time or another has had their leadership effectiveness challenged by “the gift” of the direct report who drives them crazy. Have you ever had a person working for you who simply made you nuts? Something about interacting with them affected you like hearing nails dragged down a chalkboard. Why does that happen? More importantly, what can you learn from it? How can you (and your organization) benefit from it?

If an employee is not performing up to expectations, that is straightforward. You have a performance issue on your team, and you have to deal with it. However, if the difficulty is more of an interpersonal problem, that is trickier. This situation does not feel like a gift, but here is why it can be.

First, you can learn, via introspection, why that person is driving you to distraction. You may gain insight into your own demons in the process. Is it possible the person exhibits traits you like least in yourself, or perhaps reminds you of someone from your past? For example, I worked with someone who had an “aha moment” when she realized that she was hypersensitive to being micromanaged — even seeing it where it did not exist — because it reminded her of being stifled by an overly controlling parent. If a direct report is pushing your buttons, ask, “Why is this person getting to me so much?” Think about what subtle subconscious connections you may be making; that awareness can set you free.

Secondly, the people who bother you are probably not the ones nodding their heads and saying, “Yes, boss, you are right,” or bringing you rosy news. These are usually the ones who question everything, who have whacked-out ideas, who always play devil’s advocate. They may be pushing the organization to think innovatively and look beyond “how we have always done it.”

By definition, leaders want their teams to succeed and that requires the success of each individual member. What can you do if you are in the uncomfortable position of having a direct report who drives you nuts?

  1. Take the opportunity to really look at and understand what is getting under your skin, and why.
  2. Interactions with these people are opportunities to build your listening skills. You might be tempted to cut them off as soon as they start talking, but give them the benefit of the doubt. Their ideas may lead to the breakthrough you have been looking for in your business.
  3. As the leader, you need to guard against favoritism. You have to treat everyone on your team the same. If someone is pushing your buttons, you have to be hyper-vigilant about fairness.
  4. Take care of yourself. Be rested. Protect your personal boundaries. Leaders who are stressed or burned out have a very low threshold for annoyance.
  5. Look for ways to amplify the positives, especially the strengths this person has. The benefit is two-fold: it will enable individual and organizational success and will shift your attention and perspective toward the good in this individual.

Who is pushing your buttons and why? What are the three things you value most about this individual?

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