Six Ways to Deal with Messy People


The easiest, short-term leadership strategy is avoiding people. Just hide in your office doing paperwork.

Connecting with people is messy. Hidden baggage bubbles just under the skin. Emotions erupt. Priorities shift. Personal lives collapse. Health declines. Financial stability vanishes. Just when you figure them out, they change.


Disconnection is safe. Treat people like “result-producers” and forget their baggage, frailties, and aspirations. Tell them what to do and kick their butts if they screw up.

Work is work. Ignore personal issues. Organizations aren’t self-help groups and one-on-one time isn’t therapy. Standing aloof is safe.

Professionalism is often protection from connection.


The need to solve messiness ends compassion. The need to fix is arrogance. Humble leaders simply do what they can. Sometimes that’s just asking how things are going.

“In organizational life, you can have influence over others or you can have freedom from others, but you can’t have both at the same time.” Bob Sutton in HBR


  1. Think, speak, and act optimistically. Pessimists disconnect. Optimism provides courage and strength to get messy. The ability to face problems realistically while maintaining optimism makes leaders trustworthy and inviting.
  2. Ask about issues unrelated to work. If they bring it up, it’s ok to ask.
  3. Use personal stories as connection-points. Bring yourself to work.
  4. Share frailties as well as competencies. Disconnected leaders pretend they have it all together. Their example encourages hypocrisy throughout organizations.
  5. Stop fixing. Say you care without feeling the need to fix. You aren’t momma. It’s arrogant to think so. You can’t make everything better.
  6. Adapt your style to suit the individuals you’re dealing with. Disconnected leaders expect others to adapt to them. When you don’t know the best way to deal with someone, ask them.

What’s messy about connecting?

How can leaders build connection with their people?

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