An apathetic is someone who lacks concern, interest,
or enthusiasm. A cynic is someone who has lost their ability to act on
behalf of aspirations or the collective good. Both of these are
potentially damaging to initiatives to build new capacity. They
require special handling.
Often these are simply people who
have been operating in a toxic
environment and their destructive behavior has become their coping
mechanism of choice. Occasionally, by extending the opportunity to
contribute and have positive impact, you can energize and revitalize
them. I always try this first before taking action to quash their
Four Techniques for
Re-engaging Difficult People
Tell them you want to understand their point of view and listen well.
Simply communicating your desire to understand where they are coming
from often diffuses negative emotions.
2. Make a strong attempt to hear them out. Their
story is always valid from their point of view. Put effort into
understanding how they came to their position. Suspend your
assumptions, and work to put yourself in their shoes. (For research on
the usefulness of this technique, see Bridging the Partisan Divide: Self-Affirmation Reduces
Ideological Closed-Mindedness and Inflexibility in Negotiation,
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, Vol. 93, No. 3)
3. Ask them how you can work together and offer
suggestions yourself. Initiate a collaborative approach, and
offer your best thinking as a place to start. Be quick to follow their
4. Be honest about where there is disagreement.
Once you have engaged them, do not sacrifice your goals and intentions.
Instead, in the spirit of honesty, make clear where you part paths.
Each of these strategies is aimed toward diffusing emotional antagonism
or battling indifference. Success includes turning these people into
constructive detractors; i.e., those who do not support your efforts
but will engage with you in a supportive manner.
But, suppose you have done all of this and they still write you off or
are out to get you? What then? If they are subordinates, you can
relieve them of their work. But, what if that is not a possibility?
Five Options for
Working with Toxic and Unredeemable People
Go around them. Seek support from their peers. Build an alliance
across their social network, and go through others to influence or
neutralize their behavior.
2. Go over them. Address the issues with
their superiors. Once you win support, explore how to minimize the risk
associated with them.
3. Go under them. Establish working
relationships with their subordinates. This is risky for the
subordinates, so you must offer them protection—perhaps anonymity or
otherwise shield them from harm.
them off. Isolate them from their points of influence. Do this
by identifying their partners—those they work with to generate negative
impact for your program—and engage each of them.
through them. At every engagement, show up prepared to do judo:
take their assaults and turn the force toward your objectives.
I once met with a department director who was dead set against the
change work my client was leading. He claimed the effort was counter to
the mission of the organization. After a short conversation, it became
apparent that he saw no role for himself in the future if our effort
was successful. I asked him to participate in some of our strategy
sessions and raise the mission issue with an eye to how he could
personally ensure that we were consistent with the organization’s
By inviting him in, I hoped to draw on his energy and focus it on our
goal. He refused to participate. But several of his subordinates who
were present for our encounter jumped in, offered helpful suggestions,
and became advocates. His attacks on us soon faded away altogether. I
call this “judo” because I did not push against his force but instead
used it toward constructive ends.
In all cases, be aware that your actions are visible to many people,
and the way you run your program makes one of the most powerful
statements in support of your eventual success. Do your best to engage
the difficult. You will win some over. Regardless, continue to work
strategically without hostile intent and take corrective action with
those who do not engage. As a result, you will garner respect and
support from many observers.