Must you compete ruthlessly to succeed? What if you don’t want to be like that? A lateral take on working with difficult people*

The LDC Development Team is running a series of four masterclasses on thinking, organising and collaborating facilitated by Dr Adrian West and Sophie Brown from Company of Mind.

Register now for the following face-to-face workshops in this series:


Working with Difficult People – Tuesday, 28th May 9:15 – 16:30 hours

Getting Organised for Research (and Life) – Thursday, 6th June 9:15 – 16:30 hours

Problem Solving and Decision Making – Tuesday, 18th June 9:15 – 16:30 hours

Here’s some thoughts from Company of Mind on the next masterclass on 28th May “Working with Difficult People“. 

We don’t get career success by beating our rivals with clubs any more. In fact in most of the civilised world you’ll get locked up if you do. To the degree that is true (and it’s at least true-er than it was), it’s surely a remarkable achievement of civilisation. Even if it’s not entirely clear how we managed to progress.

Well, that’s in the physical realm anyway. But the attitude of aggressive individual winning to get to the top is the dominant image for career success.  It’s commonly viewed as good and inevitable, but you could also say it’s just another primitive way of doing things that we haven’t yet got beyond; like beating each other with clubs.

I say this because a lot of people don’t really enjoy the aggressively competitive career world, and are rather put off by it – and that’s nothing to do with their talent or commitment. Some people love it too. Those are just different ways that people are made up. Yet in our culture this common message for the ‘right’ and ‘only’ way to be ‘successful’, brings problems.  Understandably, given the selection pressure, research hints at CEOs tending to score high on clinical scales of psychopathology, which has some implications for what it’s like to work in modern institutions. And the very people who end up in charge of things, end up controlling the narrative of what the right way to be is, which is self-perpetuating, reinforcing the messages everyone ends up unquestioningly believing.

In adversity we might find opportunity too, if we look.

If (like the majority of people) you’re not motivated by the ruthlessly competitive image and that’s not the sort of person you want to become, then how do you “succeed?  What does “succeed” mean if the existing criterion may be badly distorted?  This is important because the further you progress in your careers, by the above reasoning, the more ‘difficult’ people you will encounter. One response is to find a niche and hide away to side-step all that. But a more interesting approach is to ask the question “How do we work creatively with the people who see, and behave in the world, quite differently?”.  There are two reasons for doing this.

Firstly, if you get good at dealing with difficult people, you’ll be hugely valuable anywhere you go – especially in ‘technical’ and academic environments!  Secondly , with practice and confidence, those situations become a rewarding challenge in your life. You might even look forward to opportunities for practice.

To end on another positive future note, the shift in evolutionary studies is that cooperation out-competes competition. Whilst aggressively ambitious individuals do well within a team, a team of creatively cooperative people, outperforms the team with the ambitious individual (and sounds like a better life experience too).  In images, the trend is from the satanic miils of the ‘industrial revolution’ to the creative workplaces of technology outfits; from the “struggle for survival” to the “snuggle for survival”;  more KPop than DeathMetal. The opportunity is to be ahead of that curve.

* This blog isn’t the content of the “Working with Difficult People” workshop. But it is a novel take on why that might be a good area in which to increase capacity and gain skills. See the advertisment for the workshop to see what that’s about.

Dr. Adrian West & Sophie Brown, Company of Mind, www.companyofmind.com contact adrian@companyofmind.com