“People always accommodate the most difficult person in the room.”
Shining City: A Novel, by Tom Rosenstiel

So many mission-driven organizations focus on improving and enriching the lives of individuals and families, enhancing communities, furthering understanding, and much more to make things better. Compassion and the desire to be responsive to needs is important in working with clients. However, when it expands into nonprofit management, manifesting as being slow to address the behaviors of a difficult staff member, it can cause dysfunction in the organization. In this post, I share one such scenario as a cautionary tale.

Case Study: A Problem Revealed

Years ago, I facilitated a staff retreat for a client. The focus was on aligning staff duties and responsibilities with the organization’s programmatic priorities. We followed the planned agenda: ranking programmatic priorities, identifying team and individual strengths, and how these complemented each other. As is so often the case, important issues emerged.

The organization had a small staff, so how everyone worked together was of the utmost importance. In all organizations, individuals need to be able to trust that their colleagues will fulfill their roles, honor deadlines, and move together toward the goal. But with a small team, one cannot move around within the organization to mitigate working with someone who is difficult.

Through conversations with my client, I knew that this team did not function well: One person wasn’t an engaged member of the team. Each of the other members of the staff had, in some way, been affected (more than once) by her attitude and lack of attention to tasks and deadlines. My client, her supervisor, had had many conversations with her. Indeed, our hope was that the retreat activities would foster more collegiality, that working together to understand each other’s strengths and the programmatic needs would move the dial.

As we talked about ways to take the organization to the next level, staff felt that they were being held back by this one person. The underlying current of frustration bubbled to the surface. The team members who had repeatedly found it challenging to work with this person couldn’t ignore their feelings any longer. Instead of feeling as if on the hot seat, this staff person expressed disbelief that her behaviors caused problems. Her lack of self-awareness became another issue.

As the facilitator, of course, it was my job to understand what was going on in the room and shift gears to address what needed attention. Thus, we spent some time talking about values and traits, the qualities that were important to the success of this small but mighty team of colleagues.

The retreat had tense moments. Truths were spoken. There was discomfort all around. Yet, everyone felt that the conversation had been productive and, in the end, they had agreed on a way to work together that would support attaining the organization’s goals while fostering mutual respect.

Goodwill Accommodation

As follow-up, my client and I continued to discuss the situation and what had emerged at the staff retreat. We brainstormed ways to continue to convey the message to the employee that she needed to think about how her actions affected her colleagues. We talked about how to work with her to increase her self-awareness so that she would gain understanding of what her colleagues might need, how what she did fit into the flow of the work and what it meant to others when she ignored deadlines or brushed people off. However, I cautioned my client about the risks of too much patience and suggested ways to hold the difficult person accountable.

Valiantly, my client continued to work to build the team – honoring differences, understanding how each role contributed to achieving the mission and goals, and supporting each team member. Since we talked throughout the year, I could stay posted on the situation, but I doubted that it was truly changing.

Cutting the Organization’s Losses

At the beginning of the next summer, my client called again to talk about another staff retreat. Thinking about the prior year and the way the retreat had changed course as issues below the surface could no longer be tamped down, I asked some pointed questions to help my client reflect on the conversations we’d been having since the prior summer. Was the team working together respectfully? Had the issues from the prior summer been resolved? Was my client, as the executive director, confident that the conflicts and concerns had been put to rest? Did she think we would be able to stay focused on planning for the organization or would the retreat again deteriorate?

I knew the answer to these questions were “no.” So did my client. Little had changed. In some ways the situation may have become worse because all the issues were out in the open. My client had focused a lot of energy on the difficult employee, and the other team members felt even more frustrated.

And so, I suggested that it would not be a good use of time and money to have another staff retreat because the key issue was still unresolved. It would not be worthwhile for the members of the team who “get it” to have to go through another day trying to plan when they knew that there hadn’t been substantial change from the year before. Moreover, I suggested that the time had come to stop trying to accommodate the difficult person and to shift focus to those who were doing well by the organization. From my perspective, time was running out before staff became tired of the difficult person getting all the attention. It was time to cut the losses.

Act Decisively for the Good of the Order

Time and again I have seen clients expend energy, good will, and resources to accommodate the difficult person – a member of the staff or board member. In the worst-case scenario, the good folks move on because they are fed up with the disruption and/or indulgence. In the best-case scenario, an organization’s leaders – chief executive and/or board chair – address the situation in a calm, forthright manner by doing what needs to be done.

The most difficult person in the room takes up a lot of space, often eclipsing those who consistently fulfill their commitments and even exceed expectations. The challenge for leaders is to be aware of where they focus their attention, how long they tolerate certain behaviors, and the message they are sending.