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Avoiding thorns in the flesh

When I do talks for heads (Yes I'm available: no I'm not cheap) I run through a little questionnaire. One item, based on a real incident, says, "Have you ever avoided a tiresome colleague by leaving your room through the window?" A follow-up, not quite so factual, goes, "Have you ever avoided a tiresome colleague by lying in the school pond and breathing through a straw?"

What's interesting isn't so much that heads find this stuff funny, but that they nod in pained recognition. No leader, in any sphere, is immune from the curse of the colleague who brings on the urge to flee.

I don't mean incompetence or idleness. It's more about people who are just irritating. My own thorns in the flesh include Short-Focus Phil, who insists you listen at length to his trivial problem while you're itching to go and deal with a real one - "They will keep on using their shoelaces for conker strings, you see." And Single-Solution Sarah, who went on a really good course once, and can't stop believing that it holds all the answers to your problems - "There was this school that had all these behaviour problems and then they tried this green ointment." Or Been-There Bernard, for whom there's nothing new under the sun - "We tried that in 1979 and it didn't work then either."

The most successful heads I've worked with have been patient with such people, smiling, making eye contact, looking interested. Me, I could never help sighing and letting my gaze wander through the window to the three boys trying to hang each other from a tree on the school field.

All this is brought on by re-reading a popular general management book called Dealing With People You Can't Stand by Brinkman and Kirschner.

(McGraw Hill, pound;7.99) The fact that it has sold steadily for more than 10 years tells you a lot about how many irritating people are out there.

The authors have some good strategies: don't agree with whiners, it just encourages them. But don't disagree because you'll just set them off again.

What you do is have patience, compassion - because they have lost control of their lives - and commitment to helping them focus on their own solutions. There's also a very necessary, though scary, chapter that tells you what to do when you discover that you yourself are the problem.

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