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Author: Dr. Roy L. Kirby

Tough Respect!

Co-authored by Carol A. Kirby

Why a Project Manager Needs it to Prevent or Manage a Difficult Conversation

It is tempting for a project manager to focus very tightly on the goals, project deadlines, deliverables and tight or slack aspects of the critical path to completion. Well, of course! you say. That’s the nature of the job, isn’t it? Let me offer an alternative idea: There is no management without people management, and the manager has no more difficult task than getting work done through people. People are emotional; they change their minds, they protect themselves against risk and disapproval, they avoid (or enjoy) conflict, and they are sometimes unmanageable. Given this reality, we focus on what we can control: the task, and we assume that the people issues will be solved somehow through the task-completion process.

With new, more democratic approaches at work, there seem to be few words to describe the complexity of interdependent relations between people and teams. Do we still have Bosses? Subordinates? Direct Reports? Or do we choose the new language of Teams, and Associates? Traditional structures have morphed into peer networks, not chains of command. New pressures on organizations to collaborate internally to enable competition externally reveal a dire need for improved communicative effectiveness in most workplaces.

Interpersonal competence (the ability to communicate, influence, supervise, lead, manipulate processes and control resources at all levels of the organization) is absolutely essential as organizations and their projects increase in scope and size and complexity, with the resulting stress that project managers commonly experience in today’s tight financial times. Tough Respect is one approach, I suggest the best approach, to managing projects and the people who execute them in a firm but fair manner. Reputations for excellence have been built on it.

New managers tend to focus on the decision-making rights and control responsibilities they expect will come with promotion to a managerial job. However, experienced managers know they must still lead, while adapting to the erosion of that traditional boss-power, for they know that it does not come from position any more. Where, then? Today’s manager earns vital soft power by establishing credibility through demonstrating competence; influencing others on behalf of the team; clarifying goals and the ways to get there; getting the right people into the right jobs with the right tools; measuring the right things; ensuring that staff are provided development challenges —and by communicating.

In good times or in positive circumstances, communication can seem relatively easy but in tight, stressful situations with tense people we can quickly revert back to old, ineffective styles. Specifically, which workplace situations do we find tough and hard to handle? A 2003 study identified the big problems as confronting those who are lazy, who don’t perform well, and handling those who are negative, cynical, and toxic. Which people cause us frustration? Topping the list are those who are passive-aggressive, arrogant, and/or incompetent. Further up the scale of difficulty are people who are argumentative, autocratic, judgmental or immature. Then there are the ones from whom it is best to walk away and never look back.

How, then, do we approach these diverse personalities in order to get the project done? Tough Respect demonstrates the process in four distinct steps:

  1. Preventing a tough situation
  2. Knowing when you are having a tough situation
  3. Managing a tough situation
  4. Knowing when to walk away.


Preventing tough situations calls for authenticity and trust.


Authenticity is an essential mental set; it is conveyed in your walk and your talk. Psychologists have interviewed muggers in jail, who have told them they can tell from across the street who they can attack and who they do not mess with. Great martial artists will tell you: The best fight is the fight that is never fought. Why bother training and learning, then? Because that is where we develop confidence. If you give off subtle signals that it is OK to push you around, someone will do just that.

That doesn’t mean you should take the Command and Control approach; quite the opposite. The language of authenticity is firm but fair. Respect is built into every up, down, and sideways interaction. Blaming people is replaced by an objective assessment of the processes and systems that were involved. The authentic project manager doesn’t take the lazy way out. The authentic project manager uses power not to push people around, but to arrange things, obtain resources, use contacts, verify processes, get the right equipment, and network with others who are influential to get the job done.


Replacing the old-think concept of top – down power calls for a new foundation based on trust. Our relationships succeed or fail one conversation at a time. Trust, candor, and effectiveness are tightly linked, but trust is the catalyst in the mix. We demonstrate respect if we are candid without being negatively critical, if we let people know that we think they can handle bad news or constructive communication about performance problems.

Trust creates an engine for innovation, because people feel safe enough to take risks. Professionals, especially, need a climate of emotional safety if they are to think outside the box. Where it is well known that “Heads will roll!” heads are kept down for self-preservation.

It is important to be aware of when we are Having a Difficult Conversation. This is too easy, you say. I know when I’m having a hard time, don’t I? You may indeed start to feel uncomfortable with what you are hearing, and feel anger rising inside. OK; but what about the other guy? Is he having a great time? Doubtful, unless he is one of those who enjoys hurting others. He may see this conversation as a respectful interaction when he says, “I’ll call him into the office and lay a few truths out, get it all on the table, talk it through, make him see sense, make a few things clear,” etc.

The problems arise here when one or both parties don’t really know what their impact is on others. Not my problem, she doesn’t know she’s a jerk, you think? Well, it is your problem if you are on the other side of the table. And it’s your problem if you don’t realize that others dislike your approach and your way of dealing with them.

A conversation becomes difficult when the pendulum of conflict starts to swing. We know it is hard then, because our focus becomes razor sharp, we feel the pulse rate rise, we stand up, and we become tense. Once the pendulum has started to swing (What do you mean by that…. Excuse me? What was that again? Just a minute….) it takes very little energy to make it go higher, and even less to sustain the swings back and forth. (I would have thought it was clear to anyone, even you….I’ll make it crystal clear for you…. OK, let me be perfectly frank… You really want to know?).

In such a situation, unless preventive action is taken, the emotional climate becomes overcharged quickly. It does take considerable commitment to stop the upswing, but one of us has to take the initiative, even if it is simple, such as “Come on, this is getting us nowhere. Let’s stop it and talk things through”. To take the energy out of a difficult conversation, one party has to absorb the shock, take the hit, and back down. This may be easy to say, but for many of those who equate power with control, it can be difficult to do.

If we know what is likely to happen, or is going on, and what our impact is on others, before we get hot under the collar, we can prevent it getting out of hand.

Managing a Tough Situation

The exercise of control over actions and moods has long been an unwritten social expectation (Control yourself, please! Get a grip! He lost it completely!) This is more true in some cultures than others (the British “stiff upper lip” for example). We all know that our range of control depends on stress levels, mood, and a host of other factors. We can’t control the world but we can control how we think about it, and therefore how we react to it.

When attacked, we can stand aside by using various means: looking away, focusing on a picture on the wall, focusing on a part of the attacker’s clothing or a lapel badge, for example. It may seem disrespectful to you to refuse your complete attention to someone who is forcefully targeting you, but as a defense mechanism it is merely the strategic allocation of attention. We might also think of it as the controlled delaying of the gratification that we get from returning fire. In a perfect world we would have objective views of differing opinions or interpretations rather than flare-ups and destructive conflict. However, the reality is all too familiar: we interpret the situation instantly, and respond to attack, usually defensively, but sometimes angrily, in one or more of three modes:

Response Mode # 1: we object to the facts of the matter and say, “This is incorrect. You got your facts wrong. It didn’t happen that way.”

Response Mode # 2: our feelings are hurt and we feel outrage. “How dare you! That hurts my feelings… What a thing to say to me!”

Response Mode # 3: we perceive comments as attacks on our identity, our competence, our integrity, our self. “What are you saying about me? Are you accusing me of incompetence? What kind of person do you think I am?”

The Fourth Mode

While perfect control is for most of us a dream, we can learn how to respond to an attack or verbal hit. The Fourth Mode of Defense calls for you to acknowledge the hit, recover your balance, step back and choose what to do next.

It seems natural for us to want to win. “I can look after myself, thank you!” or, “I can take care of it. I’m grown up – just watch me.” Or, “If they mess with me they’ll regret it.” However, such knee-jerk, prideful responses just push that pendulum higher into the no-win zone.

It’s a no win because even if you see yourself as having won – the other party lost. Now you have an enemy. How many of us need enemies in daily life? That’s right; none of us do.

There are many techniques to manage difficult conversations; use assertive language, blend with the attacker to deflect it; be precise in your talk of expectations; know how to make points on performance that is great, weak, lacking, or unacceptable; deal with stress-affected people with empathy, not sympathy, and more. To cover that detail here is not possible; you’ll have to take the course or read the book from which parts of this article are excerpted. The key is, though, fairly straightforward: know how much you contributed to the problem (Yes! It will be some amount, however small…) and manage the conversation with skill and language that does not inflame.

When to Walk Away

We said earlier in this piece that the need for power and the abuse of power are major causes of workplace conflict. Stress adds to the tension. It is a destructive tradition of our society that we take freedom away from others by making them do what we want them to do or say is good for them.

There is a wide variety of personality types that resists our best efforts at trusting, effective communication. With some of these, our most skilled and empathetic efforts fail, or may even make matters worse. However, we can learn to identify these people and to realize when we should cut our losses.

Power-addicted people tend to think like this: I control others or they control me; it is my right and my duty to control workers. It is my right and my duty to catch, and to punish those who disobey, break the rules, or don’t work hard enough. There is nothing harder to control that a righteous-minded person who is given a little power over others. However, it is almost impossible to control others if you try to make them do something that does not satisfy their needs. Motivation, for example, is maybe the least understood aspect of managerial work. Briefly, motivation is not about making others work; it is about arranging the work environment so that others feel as though they want to work.

How to deal with power oriented authoritarians? Clarify expectations in detail then walk away until you have a bottom line to demonstrate your competence.

What of those whose expectations change, or can never be met?

Perfectionists are some of the most reliable, hardworking, solid, responsible people around. Unfortunately they bring a dark side with them; they are driven to meet self-imposed personal and professional standards and goals to such an extent that they cannot abandon themselves to even a few hours of purposeless leisure. They feel guilty and undisciplined. Like Type A personalities, they would see being sent on holiday as some kind of punishment.

How to deal with perfectionists? Ask questions, ask for help, leave a “draft” copy for their “approval: and then walk away until the perfectionist has changed it.

Workaholics are out of control, think about work constantly and if they are unable to work they feel panicky or depressed. They get a high from deadlines, long hours and a single-minded focus on work, but personal relationships suffer as a result. Manic overworking can produce surges of adrenaline that can result, over the long term, in high blood pressure and heart problems. It’s a symptom of obsessive personality and a broader obsession with orderliness, control and perfectionism, perhaps rooted in mild but long-lasting depression.

How to deal with a real life workaholic? If this person is an engine in your department, don’t tell them to take it easy; give them lots to do and don’t try to compete with them when they offer reports of “I worked all night on this.”

In using Tough Respect and the specific communication skills related to this approach, we become adept at assisting people to achieve the goals of the project at hand. Of equal importance is the fact that we help them grow into trusting, trusted colleagues who bring new skills and insights to future projects and to all aspects of the work environment.

Don’t forget to post your comments below.

Dr. Roy L. Kirby’s career brings together hands-on industrial experience and decades of management consulting with both private and public sectors at home in Canada and overseas. Today, he teaches at university in Canada and in China; creates workshops and professional development events tailored for high-performance clients, consults internationally on the resolution of selected organizational problems, and writes more than he used to but still less than he should.

Dr. Carol A. Kirby has a distinguished record of success in her chosen career as an educator. Carol is a well-respected thinker on problems in the management of adults and children; her PhD work in counseling has been sustained by professional development at Harvard and Columbia. She has taken that skill set and blended it with her experience with problem people and problem situations as a manager and leader. She has taught graduate students in Canada and at present teaches.