How to Handle Difficult People—Including Your Rivals

Wondering how to handle difficult people? Research suggests that viewing others as rivals promotes competitive behavior and makes us less ethical as a result. Here’s how to defuse such situations.

By — on / Dealing with Difficult People

difficult people

One of the most common questions raised by businesspeople is how to handle difficult people. This question contains a hidden assumption: Faced with abrasive, competitive, and even unethical behavior, we view ourselves as being in the right and the other party as being wholly wrong.

Yet it’s important to consider that, in our real-life conflict scenarios, the other party may be viewing us as difficult and uncooperative.

As we think about how to handle difficult people and change our thinking, it pays to look at recent research on how rivals negotiate with each other. In research published in the Academy of Management Journal, Gavin J. Kilduff, Adam D. Galinsky, Edoardo Gallo, and J. James Reade reached conclusions that might change how you look at the problem of dealing with difficult people—and your business negotiation practices, as well.

Dealing with Difficult People

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 Features of Rivalries

Several factors explain why relationships between competitors sometimes escalate into rivalry, according to Kilduff and his team. First, similarities between competitors (such as Coke and Pepsi) can encourage comparisons that foster rivalry. Second, competitors who repeatedly square off may develop stronger feelings of rivalry toward one another over time. Third, when competitions between rivals result in close outcomes, they anticipate similarly tight competitions in the future, and their rivalry intensifies.

Rivalry increases the psychological stakes of a competition, and we are more motivated and perform better when competing against rivals as compared to nonrivals. For example, Kilduff found in a 2014 study that long-distance runners ran faster in races that included their rivals.

 The Dark Side of Rivalry

In their research, Kilduff and his colleagues identified a hidden pitfall of rivalry—namely, its tendency to increase unethical behavior, including in negotiation.

In one experiment conducted online, Kilduff and his team told 101 participants that they would be paired for a negotiation simulation with another participant. (In fact, there were no counterparts, and the study ended before any negotiation began.) Participants were told they would be playing the role of a car dealer negotiating the sale of used equipment to a competing car dealer in the same town. About half of the participants received instructions that portrayed their counterpart as a longtime business rival. The other half were told that the counterpart ran a new business and was not yet a direct competitor.

All the participants were told that they had a low offer of $25,000 from another party to buy the equipment, which they had purchased for $75,000. They were asked how they would communicate information about the other offer to their competitor in the negotiation. Among the participants, 56% in the rivalry condition said they would deceive their counterpart about the offer to gain an advantage, as compared to only 33% of those in the nonrivalry condition. In particular, those who believed that they would face a rival indicated being far more likely to lie indirectly—for example, by exaggerating the offer’s quality (“very good”) without mentioning a numerical value—as compared to those who thought they’d face a nonrival.

In another experiment, participants reported being more willing to engage in unethical negotiation tactics, such as making false promises or intentionally misleading the other side, with rivals than with nonrivals. The prospect of negotiating with a rival heightened participants’ concerns about maintaining their sense of self-worth and status. In turn, these concerns seemed to lead participants to focus so narrowly on performing well that they were willing to cut ethical corners to do so.

 Wondering How to Handle Difficult People? Defuse Rivalries

Employees and their managers can take several precautions aimed at diffusing difficult situations and reducing the likelihood of unethical behavior in negotiations:

  1. Avoid fierce competition. When employees compete for prizes, such as bonuses and promotions, the resulting rivalries may backfire by encouraging unethical behavior. Call off such difficult situations at work by reducing competition.
  2. Focus on growth. To maintain high ethical standards in external negotiations, don’t go overboard viewing competing firms as rivals. Focus more on your organization’s growth and innovation than on besting other organizations.
  3. Override intuitive thinking. To protect the ethicality of your decisions in negotiation from being eroded by rivalry, augment intuitive decision making with algorithms and other objective sources of data.

What other advice do you have on how to handle difficult people, including rivals?


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