Confronting Strong Personalities to Make Space for Other Perspectives

“There will be some strong personalities in the room.” It’s what I hear from nearly every new client before facilitating senior and executive-level retreats and strategic planning sessions. And, I get it. It’s fair warning that managing the pace and tone of the conversation will be a challenge.

Having a “strong personality” is code for being difficult to work with, domineering in conversations, and often biased towards one way of getting things done. Strong personalities are everywhere, and they are a problem for everyone. They have a disproportionate impact on any key decision and the direction of the organization.

What I find most bothersome is the fact that these strong personalities often have some self-awareness of their position of power. They’re not particularly motivated to change things because, after all, the approach is working for them. They often get their way because others are too afraid to confront them.

It always surprises me how many CEOs and executive directors work around their team-members with strong personalities instead of dealing with the disruptive behaviors head-on. Executives do this because they’re human, and have the same reservations we all do about confrontation.

They also reap some benefits from these strong personalities, since they’re often the same people who will spearhead problems and propose solutions. The problem isn’t that they’re acting counter to the organization’s interests, it’s that they see only one way to tackle issues — their way. In reality, there are an infinite number of solutions to any problem, but they’re not going to listen to any other team members’ proposals. Their strategy is to make options seem scarce and paint stark differences between any proposed approaches.

Strong personalities exist simply because they weren’t told to listen to other people’s perspectives enough as children. People with natural tendencies to speak out and advocate strongly for their position are rewarded early in their careers for their decisiveness and perspective. Without a counterbalance, they gradually get out of control.

Once they’re at this extreme point, CEOs are reluctant to do anything. However, it’s not just on them to keep these people in check.There are several important elements to the solution.

If you’re in a leadership position, you must acknowledge that you’re not really in the driver’s seat as long as you let others consistently dominate and squash ideas. Building your own skills in crucial conversations is a start. You also need to set boundaries and expectations on an ongoing basis not just in “check the box” annual performance reviews.

If you’re a peer, you need to get to know this person, understand the roots of their perspective, and introduce alternative viewpoints. Strong personalities don’t react well when confronted for the first time in a group setting. Keep in mind that the strong personality enjoys putting on a show in front of an audience. They rarely, if ever, concede a point in front of a group because they view this as weakening their influence. So, working with them effectively starts one-on-one and behind the scenes. When you have a conflicting view or approach, you must share it with them in advance and at a time when you can talk it through calmly and without an audience.

If you’re a subordinate, working with a strong personality requires increasing the volume of options. Domineering types would like everyone to believe that there are only a handful of choices and the right one is obvious. You can provide a counterbalance to this by providing other avenues to reach the same goal. You also need to know and establish your boundaries as an employee. You won’t be yelled at, put down, berated, or dismissed. If you’re able to raise awareness about these behaviors in a private meeting, that’s the best option. If not, you’ll need to engage human resources.

Strong personalities are prevalent. Left unchecked they can increase their power and control within an organization simply because no one wants to confront them. They can and should be managed to enable the flow of ideas. Depending on your role, there are specific actions you can take to help build awareness and establish boundaries with an individual with these tendencies. Action is needed. They’re not going to magically get better with time.