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Working with a Prickly Genius

The artist, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, was a genius of unparalleled proportion and the epitome of a Renaissance man. Of course, we know him best by his famous first name, Michelangelo, and nearly 500 years after his death, thousands of people line up daily in Rome and Florence to view his awe-inspiring works. As his art uplifts us, we’re not inclined to give much thought to what it was like to actually interact with the artist; however, most accounts suggest that he was an extremely difficult person, a prickly genius.

The renowned painter, sculptor, architect, and poet was a solitary and sullen man with odd personal habits. He is said to have slept in his clothes and boots, often appeared disheveled, and practiced poor personal hygiene. In fact, his personal style was so rough and his domestic habits so squalid that few pupils could stand being around him for any length of time.

Michelangelo was also extremely hard on himself, others, and his work—quite literally at times. One well-known anecdote relates how when finishing Moses (San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome), he violently struck the knee of the statue with a hammer and shouted, “Why don’t you speak to me?” Apparently, Moses said nothing in response.

Michelangelo’s long-running feud with his younger competitor, Raphael, is still discussed and dissected by art historians and critics today. In Raphael, Michelangelo, Sebastiano: High Renaissance Rivalry, psychiatrist Robert Liebert writes, [Michelangelo] “made Raphael bear the brunt of his unrelenting envy, contempt, and anger.” Evidently, the proximity of their workspaces in the Vatican did nothing to inspire a conciliatory spirit in the painter of the Sistine Chapel. Instead, the acclaim received by young Raphael seemed to fan the competitive flame and drove Michelangelo deeper into conflict.

So why this character study of a Renaissance painter? It’s because you probably work with a prickly genius as well and it pays to think about how you can make the most of tough workplace relationships. While your colleague is probably not a Michelangelo-level genius, he or she is likely highly intelligent, incredibly talented, and produces outstanding work. He or she is also a major pain to be around. Some days, you wonder whether that difficult person’s work product is worth the disruption created by their interpersonal ineptitude. Ultimately, that’s for you to decide; however, I will offer a few ideas on how you might connect with the prickly genius in more productive ways:

  • Learn what drives them. Something is driving that behavior, and those motives are most likely positive. I know it sounds absurd, but it’s true. Michelangelo was driven to create perfection. It was a lofty goal and, according to most critics, one that he accomplished. While he didn’t interact with his contemporaries in the most fruitful ways, the pursuit of perfection in his work was indeed honorable. Most of the people with whom you work also have honorable intentions. Uncovering those intentions will transform the way you work. 
  • See them through a lens of positive intent. When you work with someone who rubs you the wrong way, try to see the good intentions behind the off-putting behavior. The lens of positive intent tends to soften your heart and you may view them with a bit more grace. Perhaps they had a difficult upbringing or they were never taught a better way. Maybe they simply don’t recognize how they affect the people around them (i.e., big blind spot). Of course, some behavior is inexcusable, but the things that are just personally annoying might be considered through that softer lens of positive intent. 
  • Speak to them in a language they understand. Don’t remain silent about behavior that is disruptive or nonproductive. Have the courage to speak to that person, but do so with an approach and words that will have the greatest impact. If you know their motives, it becomes much easier to appropriately adjust your approach; however, it might be as simple as letting them know how their behavior is negatively impacting others on the team. Other times, a careful and methodical explanation of why their approach isn’t working will make them think. And with others, letting them know that they are going to fall short of their desired results if they don’t change their ways will grab their attention.
  • Help them develop their interpersonal skills. Let’s face it, some people need training to improve their interpersonal skills. Of course, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. It’s true, but as a manager or leader, you need to give people access to the water of skill development and personal insight in order to give them an opportunity to improve. Core Strengths: Results through Relationships training is a good place to start, but you will likely need to follow up with ongoing feedback and coaching, as well other developmental opportunities.

Of course, if your difficult colleague has crossed the line in ways that violate company policies, the rule of law, or the dignity of others, then take the appropriate action by involving the right people from HR and company management. No one should tolerate extreme disrespect; however, there may be ways to work with the prickly genius in your office so that someday, people will look back and admire the great work created by your team.

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mike-headshot Dr. Mike Patterson is a principal at Core Strengths and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. He is also the co-author of Core Strengths: Results through Relationships training and the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places. Contact him at mike@corestrengths.com

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