Dealing with Difficult People

Mary Nicknish

Senior Engineering Manager at Vitally



"I have worked in several companies that were highly dysfunctional. I look back and wonder how I survived so long and what I could have done differently to change things. The biggest issues I had was working in a culture of confrontation, blaming and bullying when making decisions or understanding a problem. These behaviors came from the top and were encouraged as a way of weeding out the best ideas (trust me, this does work!)"

"When I was dealing with these issues, I was not in a place to make the final decisions and didn't feel empowered to stand up to the entire exec staff. I had one woman, our CMO, who didn't want anyone to challenge her ideas. In a meeting she would use condescending language to get you to back off. We usually ended up arguing to no avail. In the end, she would get her way, and no new ideas were ever entertained."

"In another situation, I had a CEO who was always right. And when he got into a bad mood, there was no way to correct him, even if you had the data to prove what he was saying was wrong. He spent a lot of time just yelling at people and never listening."

Actions taken

"Looking back, I wish I would have taken a different tact with the CMO. Instead of fighting with her I think a better way is to make her feel listened to. Start by repeating back her ideas and acknowledging why she might feel the way she does. Then slowly start introducing your ideas. Make sure they are not threatening but instead introduced as questions ('What if we thought about it another way...')."

"For the CEO, I decided to meet with him before a big meeting with other people in the room. I would come with the data I was going to present and let him understand it before we got in front of an audience. This really helped. Part of his issue was not being patient. When he didn't understand something, he would get angry and feel out of control. My meetings went a lot smoother when he understood."

Lessons learned

"It is never ok to create a culture of dysfunction to get creative ideas. No one wins in this scenario as it creates a place where people don't get to be accountable because decisions are pushed down from the top. No one wants to give ideas for fear of being shut down."

"I now work for a fully functional company where everyone is accountable up and down the org. Open, honest communication is required to work here. The difference I have noticed is that people feel like they can make a difference and therefor try harder and aren't afraid to speak their mind. When someone at the top creates a culture of fear and control, the rest of the organization gets in line and does exactly what they are asked to do and no more. Eventually companies like this will fail or stagnate because only a few people at the top are holding it up. If you want to build a company that will last, empower your employees to be a part of the process. Encourage questions and ideas and let people run with them. Allow for mistakes to be made and then learn from them and keep going."

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Mary Nicknish

Senior Engineering Manager at Vitally

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionSkill DevelopmentOvercoming Bias

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