A little progress isn’t a lot, but in conflict sometimes it’s more than enough.
Motorcycle entrepreneur Jess James has been the most blunt communicator on The Apprentice this season. He is the one contestant who always gives straightforward answers. Others hem and haw, for example, when challenged by Donald Trump to name their weakest teammate. A refreshing alternative, James answers directly and succinctly.
As another example, it was James who initiated with his characteristic directness what was arguably the most dramatic sequence in the entire show thus far. He pointed out fellow contestant Dennis Rodman’s out-of-control drinking. He did so in Rodman’s presence and with everyone else in the Boardroom, instead of ignoring the problem, or hinting about it out of Rodman’s earshot as the others had done until then.
Though direct and blunt throughout the entire season, James hasn’t lost his cool. Thus far in the competition, James is one of the only competitors who has never broken his composure, despite pressure and challenge.
Until last week. In an uncharacteristic loss of poise, James lashed out at his teammate, country music star Clint Black.
James and Black had not gotten along well all season, with James being frustrated at Black’s bullheadedness. Others also voiced concern in previous weeks that Black doesn’t listen to others’ opinions.
James particularly thought he should be listened to last week, because the task played to his expertise. James runs a successful magazine, and the task had to do with designing a print ad to run in Sports Illustrated for Right Guard deodorant, featuring a professional basketball player.
James was frustrated that Black did not incorporate more of his.
Near the project deadline when Black asked again for James’ input, as he had done throughout the task, James exploded with ridicules and insults of Black’s decisions on the ad layout.
It was an uncharacteristic and prolonged outburst. Apparently, James reached a tipping point in his capacity to tolerate Black’s challenges with taking input from others.
The problem for James was that it came at the worst time, for him and his team.
In recent weeks Black gradually was getting better at listening and taking input. On this task in particular, he did indeed incorporate several ideas from James, such as using a New York skyline as a unifying theme in the ad.
Even one of Black’s fiercest critics, Joan Rivers, commented on the positive change.
Rather than notice and credit Black’s incremental improvement, and at least attempt other means to influence even more openness from Black, James let his cumulative frustration get the better of him.
When managing conflict and dealing with difficult people over time, keep on eye on two “incrementals”: (1) incremental improvement on their part; and (2) incremental frustration on yours. Don’t let yours blind you to theirs, because it can lead to actions that hurt your cause.
That’s what happened to James. For the first time on the entire show, he looked petty. He gloated about how his team would lose, and Black would surely be fired.
In the Boardroom, after his team won, he continued to belittle Black’s accomplishment by holding his fingers with an inch of space between them, saying “he won by this much.”
There was no reason to belittle the victory at that point. Even James himself, looking at both products as an expert in magazine design, said before the final verdict was given that Black’s was slightly better.
So James in his own professional opinion agreed that Black won. In expressing that opinion, however, he could hardly have been less professional.
A single incident of pettiness like this might be enough for him to lose the competition, particularly now that it’s coming down to the end. In any event, it’s a needless and profitless risk for him to take, as it likely earned him more enmity from the teammates he abandoned. These are teammates presumably he will need to work with at least once more to advance in the competition.
When it comes to managing conflict and dealing with difficult people, you can’t expect one-hundred-percent change in a counterpart in accordance with everything you prefer. It’s not realistic because it’s not how people change. People rarely change their conflict practices dramatically, immediately and once and for all. Even when we are trying to change, we tend to alter our conflict practices in zigs and zags, with some progress and some setbacks. Change takes time.
A partial positive change is often the most that’s practically possible in a short timespan. That’s often good enough. Good enough to help you get a better result, and good enough for you to reciprocate. But expecting a total transformation in your direction is often unrealistic, misguided and even arrogant.
If a difficult person is becoming less difficult, help them continue the trend. Remember the fundamentals on incrementals: Don’t emphasize their lack of perfection at the very moment they are trying to improve, or the fault you’ll highlight most clearly may be your own.