When Someone Plays Hardball

I had a conversation with a talented leader who has achieved tremendous success in her career. She is in a tough political situation that has thrown her for a loop. A fellow leader at her company clearly wants to expand his span of responsibility and is blatantly playing hardball to make it happen. The situation has affected this woman’s ability to stay level-headed, focused on what she needs to get done, and ultimately sustain her performance. And, because she carries her work frustration home, her personal life has suffered as well.

As someone who has worked with many large companies across industries, I have seen ugly politics time and again — and have personally experienced them myself. It’s never fun, but you can navigate through it.

Here are three ideas that can help you:

1. Identify your triggers.

We all have “buttons” and some people know how to push them better than others. Yes, you know what I’m talking about. It could be a person who comes across as self-serving (e.g., blatantly schmoozing, taking all the credit, etc.) or does something equally frustrating.

When you have a strong reaction — one that you keep replaying in your head or can’t let go of — you need to identify what triggered it for you. Usually it’s not just about what that person said or did. Rather, at the core it has to do with something that you really value being violated.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure this one out by yourself because your emotions can cloud your judgment and ability to work through it. So, you may need to talk to a coach, colleague, or confidant who can help you get to the heart of what’s going on.

2. Leverage the “Power of the Pause.”

If nothing else, the next time you let yourself get triggered by this person, just pause. Remember that no one can make you feel or react a certain way unless you let them. Do you really want to give the person that much power over you? That may sound counterintuitive because you may want to blame the other person for the whole situation—“Of course it’s their fault that I’m so stressed and frustrated!”

Do not underestimate the power you have. You know that you cannot control the other person, but you can control yourself — with deliberate focus and practice. I fully recognize this is much easier said than done, which is why people often need help to make the shift.

So start by taking a small step. Practice pausing when you get triggered. Even 2-3 seconds can give you just enough time to choose a different response.

3. Make a different choice.

OK, this last step may sound like a statement of the obvious, but I can’t tell you how much value people get from seeing it in black and white or hearing it. Doing more of the same will never get you a different result. Period!

The person who triggers your frustration can probably predict how you’re going to respond. So, once you can make yourself pause, you will start to notice that you can make a different choice in the moment.

By choosing a different response, you can break the unproductive cycle. This will help you focus much more on what will serve you best in that situation and less on reacting to the other person’s behavior.

A couple of final thoughts: First, don’t underestimate what you can do in tough political situations to drive the outcome you want. Second, leverage the power you have when someone plays hardball. If nothing else, identify your triggers in the situation, because doing that will help you get to a better outcome faster.