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Musings of an Emergency Manager: Difficult Partners

May 11, 2021

Musings of an Emergency Manager:

Difficult Partners

Inevitably if you work in EM long enough you’re going to encounter difficult partners. Whether it’s ignorance, lack of people skills, control issues, ego, or they are just a fecal ejection portal (FEP) can determine how you deal with them. Here’s a few ways I’ve coped with them. But you’ll need to use your own judgment to determine what’s their malfunction and how to address it. Note that whichever course you choose, it doesn’t make difficult partners less tiring or more pleasant. 


Education

Sometimes a difficult partner just doesn’t understand how the established process works. The only cure for ignorance is education. You can educate them by providing the plan/procedures in question for them to review, you can review them together, or if it’s a new plan affecting multiple partners consider a workshop to brief the group.


Participation

In a couple instances, I’ve had partners who felt they were being forced to do things against their will or information was being withheld. The best way I’ve found to deal with this is to be open and let them participate in the process. For instance, a partner agency thought my staff was keeping information from them and cutting them out of a decision-making process in which they had a role. First, we held a meeting to have them articulate the concerns. It wasn't fun, (especially as their agency had a finger-pointing culture) but you have to identify a problem before you can solve it. Then, we had representatives of each agency (Yea! A committee!) review the procedures together to identify where communication wasn’t happening. It was time-consuming, but we fixed the disconnection and in the process built trust.


Shuffle Positions

Not everyone is cut out for every job. Even if they have the technical knowledge they may not have the ability to effectively communicate it to a particular audience. I had a staff member who was supposed to advise the Executive Director of our agency during nuclear power exercises. Whenever she requested her job guide be amended he would advise her (pedantically, as I witnessed) it couldn’t be changed as it was in the FEMA approved plan. Needless to say, having someone four steps down the org chart tell the Executive Director (who believes plans are guides, not straight jackets) the plan couldn’t be changed, went over as well as pork chops at Passover. Even after coaching and modification to the job aid he still spoke down to the Executive Director. We found something else for him to do.


So if you have a partner who is sincere, but can’t communicate appropriately it’s better to make a change. Whether this person is a member of your staff, or from an outside agency the conversation will not be easy. But it’s better to address the problem than let it fester.


Establish Boundaries

Some difficult personalities just like to push boundaries for the sake of pushing. Like little kids, they test to see what they can get away with. If this is the case let them know where the boundaries are. You don’t have to get nasty or rude. You just lay out where the boundary is, why it’s there, and what happens if they go past it.


My example for this?  Shortly before a FEMA evaluated exercise a county director decided to embark on a new way of doing things for part of the radiological response. We asked for a phone call to discuss it with him, the other county directors, and the plant reps as he hadn’t brought it to the state’s attention until late in the game. On the call, we ended up agreeing to disagree about whether it was a best practice, but I made it clear if he went ahead I wouldn’t run interference for him with FEMA. The consequences would be squarely on his shoulders. There was a really long pause as this news was digested. You see my predecessor had always argued strenuously with the counties to keep everything exactly the same so we would “pass” the exercise. I’m willing to let people try new things, but they have to accept the consequences of their choices. Especially if they spring it on me at the last minute. So the county director pressed ahead and all was fine. But it was clear to everyone on the call where the line was and who would take the consequences.


Turn the Other Cheek or Give’em Enough Rope to Hang Themselves

This is perhaps one of the harder strategies to use, as it requires patience, entails putting up with a lot of … guff, and a sense of timing. By taking this track you’re letting their own personality and “charm” demonstrate what a FEP they are to the wider world. The most challenging part for me of this strategy is remaining calm and not taking the bait when they are being a complete FEP.


One time I was successful at this was a phone call where I asked a legitimate question and received a harsh rebuke from a representative of the nuclear power plant. A colleague was upset on my behalf. After the call, my colleague asked how I could let the plant rep talk to me that way. My response was “The only thing he did was demonstrate what a FEP he is to everyone on that call. No one is sitting there saying ‘Why did Mike ask that question’. They’re saying “Mr. X is a FEP.”


A time I failed is when a partner decided to question the actions of one of my staff in front of a room of 30 people, while the staff member wasn’t present, and without making an effort to talk to me about it beforehand. Let’s just say I took the bait and was the FEP that day. Everyone in the room (and possibly the neighboring rooms) understood very quickly that if they had issues with my staff they should come to me before trotting it out to the whole group. But meaningful dialogue about their concerns wasn’t possible after that.


The timing relates to how long you allow the situation to continue. You need to have enough FEP-isodes to justify taking action (because everyone has a bad day) but act before they destroy group morale. Once you have enough material you can have the needed conversations with them and/or their boss about what needs to change. And if the situation isn’t resolved by that conversation then everyone knows where they stand. Albeit things will be a touch awkward after that chat.


Endurance

Sometimes there is no escaping difficult partners. If you can’t apply the strategies I suggested above, they haven’t worked, and you haven’t thought of anything better,  your last choice is to endure them. Try to utilize them for the positives they or their organization bring to your efforts. At the end of the day, the people we serve don’t care if we like each other, they just want us to get the job done. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to like everyone we have to work with, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work with them.


Could It Be You?

If you’ve slogged all the way through this post and think all your partners are FEPs, you might want to ask yourself if you might in fact be the problem. While difficult partners are everywhere it’s unusual for every partner you work with to be consistently difficult. Everyone has their moments, but if everyone around you is crossing the FEP threshold you should really look at your own behavior. This isn’t easy. We are all the hero of our own story, so it’s hard to admit when we’re in the wrong. And if you find yourself justifying your behavior by saying it takes a FEP to make excrement happen, you’re forgetting about the entire digestive tract (your partners) that gives the FEP something to eject.


But the most important takeaway from this post is to drink because you want to, not because your partners have driven you to it.


If you have any tips for dealing with difficult partners or suggestions for other topics for me to ponder feel free to send me an email.

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