Are you struggling with a problem person? One difficult individual can appear to be your main obstacle. You spend a lot of time thinking about this person, and you stress over what to do about him or her. The way people are difficult may vary: one person doesn’t do what they say they will, someone else disagrees with every idea that comes up, another person constantly criticizes you to others. It’s very easy to think, if only they would go away, everything would be so much easier. Sometimes you have the ability to fire the people that seem to be in the way, sometimes you don’t.

Yet problems are never simply in one person. Difficult people become a symptom for the whole group; they aren’t causing the problem. When you have a cold, the runny nose or the sneezing is a symptom of the real problem: the virus in your body. In the same way, personnel problems are not the thing in itself — they are symptoms of deeper issues in the organization. You can’t solve the problem simply by getting rid of the person. Often, another similar individual will show up, because there’s an opening. Or someone else who’s already there will start behaving badly.

Jesus said when a demon leaves, it may come back bringing seven friends, because the house is “empty, swept and put in order.” (Matthew 12:43-45) What he means is that there has to be something positive put in place. Otherwise, there is still room for the dysfunction.

We often make room for problem people because no one will take a stand with them. We tiptoe around bad behavior. We won’t fire anyone, even from a volunteer position. We won’t say certain ways of behaving are unacceptable. In the church in particular, a culture of niceness prevails which allows not-so-nice behavior to flourish.

In fact, when we look at these problem people, we have to admit that we, too, are part of the problem. Often we become reactive to their behavior, rather than taking a calm stand with them: “No, you can’t do that here.” Taking this kind of stand is difficult for many. I myself find it very hard. But leaders who can’t take stands won’t lead their group very far.

What do you do if you have someone who is taking up a lot of your time and energy with difficult behavior? Here are a few suggestions:

1) As always, be clear about your own goals, especially those goals that you are not dependent on others to achieve. Think more about your goals than you do about this individual.

2) Don’t take them too seriously. A serious stance is a reactive stance. This doesn’t mean you should do nothing, but manage your own sense of personal threat.

3) You may want to get some outside coaching to help you think through a strategy for dealing with the individual, and to help you manage yourself in relation to them.

4) Spend more time with those who are healthy and functioning well than with the one or two who are not.

2 replies on “Who Is the Problem?

  • Margaret Marcuson

    Bob, thanks for making this important point that the people who cause us the most problems stir up in us something from our family of origin. When we just can’t see straight about a situation, there’s probably some kind of parallel with our family. As you point out, it’s hard to see this ourselves, and we often need an outside eye.

  • Robert Mathis

    When I can keep a sense of clarity in my own thinking about such people and the incidents they stir-up, I realize that this is an opportunity to get clearer, in the presence of others, on some matter of importance. The “problem people” and the dust around them serve as a bit of a litmus test that indicates to the leader, “Well, this is one I need to work on. Thanks for helping me get clearer about what is important…”

    When I cannot keep a sense of clarity, when the other and the turmoil around them sucks me into the pit, when the “bulls of Bashon” are breathing on me and I can see nothing else, then I know it is time to pull out my family diagram, have it in front of me, call a coach who knows theory and say, “I need help figuring out my stuff.”
    Robert Mathis


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