Monday, March 12, 2007

Book Review: Dealing with Difficult People

For those of us in technical roles, I think too often skill set becomes equated with technical skill set. The fact is non-technical or soft skill sets are beneficial to people in technical roles. Soft skills involve your ability to communicate with others via e-mail, the phone, and instant messaging but also via articles, books, conference presentations and blogs.

The importance of working well with others is amplified in Open Source projects like Eclipse. Eclipse projects tend to be developed by large, geographically dispersed teams. These teams are comprised of people with, among other things, very different backgrounds, cultures, expectations, and priorities. These differences are further highlighted by the fact that the people on the project come from many companies and organizations meaning management structure cannot be used to enforce project decisions.

With that in mind I'd like to take a look at a book I just finished reading by Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirschner entitled "Dealing with Difficult People: 24 Lessons for Bringing Out the Best in Everyone".

Let's get the details that may prevent you from looking at this book out of the way. The book is very short, weighing in at just under 100 small pages, and can easily be read in a single sitting. (I'm not a quick reader.) And, the book's cheap going for ~$10 on Amazon. Now, on with my review.

As you've likely guessed from the title, the book focuses on dealing with difficult people. These people show up at work but also in all facets of life.

In order to deal with a problem you have to know what you're dealing with. In its coverage of difficult people the book starts with an quick overview of the ten most unwanted behaviours: the Tank, the Sniper, the Know-it-all, the Think-they-know-it-all, the Grenade, the Yes Person, the Maybe Person, the Nothing Person, the No Person, and the Whiner.

With the question of "what" out of the way the book then moves on to the question of "why". Why is this person being difficult? According to the book, the motivation of a difficult person revolves around four intents. Understanding these four intents is key as once you understand the reason someone is being difficult you can work to resolve the problem in order to remedy the difficult behaviour. This part of the book should make it clear that difficult behaviour is a manifestation of another problem and once that problem is understood you can work to make the difficult person a productive member of your team.

Empowered with an understanding of who you're dealing with and what motivates them, you are ready to attack the problem. The book then presents you with a deeper view of each type of behaviour and arms you with tactics to combat each type of difficult person.

While the book focuses on identifying difficult behaviours in others I found a secondary benefit was the ability to look inwards and discover ways in which I can and have been difficult. It's not always easy to solicit negative feedback from peers and I think this book is a good tool for looking at yourself to discover some of your own negative behaviours.

Technical people need soft skills along with technical skills. Soft skills are a key component to the success of Open Source projects like those hosted at Eclipse. "Dealing with Difficult People" is not an in depth tour of the human psyche. It is a quick read that will open your eyes to the way both others and you behave and build upon your soft skills enabling further success in your projects.