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Nov 3, 2022

In all organizations, there are just some people (and I bet you know a few of them), who love to argue – mostly because they delight in the ensuing chaos. I know it’s impolitic in today’s world to say that some people are just jerks or overly dramatic, but anyone who’s worked as a frontline manager (or spent five minutes on social media), knows this is true.

Contrast these people with those who argue because they lack the metacognitive capacity to know that they have no idea what they’re talking about. Often known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, this is a cognitive bias whereby people who are incompetent at something are both unable to recognize their own incompetence but are also likely to feel confident that they are actually competent.

Argumentative types in the workplace

The presence of these people has been proved many times. In a classic study, MBA students were asked to rate how they thought their emotional intelligence compares to American adults in general. Directly after their assessments, these same students then took an actual emotional intelligence test.

The results were intriguing. The lowest-scoring students – those whose actual tests showed them to be at the 10th percentile (ie they only scored higher than 10% of American adults) – actually thought their emotional intelligence would be around the 72nd percentile. In other words, the people with the lowest emotional intelligence thought they were fantastic. They overestimated their scores by 62 percentile points. When those folks got feedback about their poor results on the test, they saw the test as less accurate and relevant than those with high scores. They didn’t like the test results, so they concluded that the test was inaccurate or irrelevant.

The points being illustrated here are that firstly, some employees love to argue because they love causing trouble, and some love to argue because they think they’re right, even though they’re actually clueless. Secondly, your chances of having a rational and logical argument with either group are near zero. In other words, if you enter into an argument with either group, you’re wasting your time and giving them exactly what they want.

Leaders aren’t usually good at managing personalities

Most leaders know this, at least intuitively. In the study, The Leadership Skills Gap, which asked more than 3,000 leaders to rate their own skills, only 31% said that they were proficient at managing difficult personalities. Most of us hope that people operate rationally with noble intentions. But again, that’s just not always true.

So, if there are some people out there trying to suck us into arguments that have little chance of resolving amicably or logically, how should we respond when it happens?

Take a topic relevant/irrelevant approach

I would counsel assessing whether someone is starting a topic-relevant or topic-irrelevant argument. A topic-relevant argument is when someone in a meeting, about a new change effort says something like: “I think this change effort is guaranteed to fail.” A topic-irrelevant argument is when someone randomly says something like, “I think all these Gen Z employees are just lazy and entitled whiners.”

For the people who start topic-relevant arguments, your response will be to redirect the conversation away from theoretical and hypothetical concerns and back to the here-and-now. Use the phrase, “I hear you, but right now, I only want to talk about the issues we control.” This is a way of shutting down arguments about the CEO’s vision for this new change, whether the executive team made a smart decision, etc., and instead bringing the discussion back to a practical reality we can all influence. It’s a nicer and more productive way of saying, “If you don’t have anything helpful or immediately useful to say, please stop talking.”

For topic-irrelevant arguments, you’ll need to say something like, “I’m not sure I agree, but let’s get back to the project at hand.” As the social media advice goes, don’t feed the trolls. Don’t engage in an argument that is destined to veer into contentious, absolutist, and even unhinged territory. You don’t have to be nasty about it, but you do want to be crystal clear that you are not engaging in this discussion, and the easiest approach is simply to point the conversation back to something practical and work-related.

It all sounds simple, but in reality, most leaders don’t enjoy cutting-off avenues for discussion, even if those avenues are unpleasant and unwinnable arguments.

Less sensitive leadership is sometimes best

We found that more than half of leaders practice a diplomat leadership style; a style that prizes interpersonal harmony, building deep personal bonds with employees, and resolving conflicts peacefully. But when it comes to dealing with truly difficult personalities – whether they’re instigators or Dunning-Kruger sufferers – a less sensitive and more directive leadership style is often more effective.

It should be noted, of course, that there are people who don’t pick fights for fun, but rather are simply raising concerns about a project.

But I would say that if you’ve worked with someone for at least a month, you should have a pretty good feel for whether the person is well-intentioned or just starting trouble.

If their arguments contain specific and actionable changes, then they’re likely being helpful. But sans those markers, you’ve probably got someone who just wants to argue, and that’s what you need to quickly curtail.