It was once said of President Gerald Ford that with his kindness and forgiving ways he “sucked the poisons” of Watergate out of the country. You may not agree but hold on to this phrase “suck the poisons out,” because this is what great leaders do.
There is a type of person you’ve probably had to work with. I call them Pricklies. They are gifted and have a lot to offer, but an odd combination of pride, wounds of rejection, and probably unhealthy isolation forces their toxins to the fore in work matters. This makes them state harsh positions rather than work for harmony, has them constantly drawing lines they dare others to cross.
Usually such a person has endured a great deal of rejection all while believing they were right. And they probably were right, but those around them were so put off by their manner that this Prickly wasn’t heard. So, he developed a communication style that is harsh, contentious, combative, and angry.
I’ve worked with this kind of person. You are tempted to show them the door. But the wise leader has to realize that they have before them a really gifted soul who just needs to have the poisons syphoned out.
The guy I had to deal with we’ll call Fred. He may well have been the smartest person in the room when our team met. Yet while everyone else worked for unity, he seemed not to care about unity. He cared about his positions. We might be talking about a legal matter and he would loudly declare, “Why, this is wrongheaded! No sane person would sign such a thing. I certainly won’t. And you’d have a legal fight if you tried to make me!”
Now, I said we were discussing a legal matter, but it wasn’t life and death. Fred conducted himself like we were about to put him in a straitjacket and force him to sign his life away. Far from it.
I wanted to keep Fred on the team. So, here’s what I did.
First, I made sure every meeting ended with “going around the room.” Everyone would get a chance for a final comment. I always started with the quietest person. I do this to this day. It settles people. It assures them they’ll be heard. With Fred, it immediately made him feel less pressured, less afraid he would be left out.
Second, Fred would often say, “Well, I guess I have to be the asshole here, but I have to say…” You see, Fred had often been right in his life, but his manner was so offensive that people rejected him. It hurt. I decided to go the opposite way. When he talked about having to be the asshole on the team, I’d say, “Fred we need your creativity and brilliance. Be as forceful as you need to be. You’re only making us better. I want your ‘assholery.’ In fact, everyone in favor of Fred’s assholery making us better say ‘Aye.’” You see what I was doing? I was showing Fred that we needed him, accepted him, and valued him. I was also showing him that he didn’t have to pick a fight to play a role.
Third, I celebrated Fred’s accomplishments just like I did everyone else’s.
You know what happened? Fred healed up. Fred mellowed. Unburdened of all his emotional stuff, Fred got more effective—even smarter. He made us all even more successful. I remember the day a few years later when Fred wept while telling us what we all meant to him.
What had happened? We sucked the poisons from the soul of our friend.
Your assignment? Go and do likewise. Don’t hate the Pricklies. Heal them, and then let them soar.