On a call to cover final details the week before a two-day disruptive innovation workshop, our client’s team began joking about some of the participants. They chuckled, amid their veiled references, about the know-it-alls, naysayers, and innovation saboteurs (otherwise known as curmudgeons) our Brainzooming team would discover scattered across four groups during the in-person workshop. 

After a few moments, I challenged them: “We aren’t client and consultant during the workshop. We are one team. We are ALL on the hook to ensure that it's successful. We need to know about your problem people now."

4 Strategies to Productively Facilitate Curmudgeons

My comment shifted us to hearing details and sharing our four strategies for managing curmudgeons to gain the greatest value from their expertise and perspectives:

Strategy 1. Strategize and Forget

We want to know upfront who the strong, potentially negative personalities are and what challenges they may present. At our workshop, most were long-tenured skeptics who see themselves as smarter than everyone. They know that creative techniques that might generate any seemingly far-fetched ideas are a waste of time. Spoiler alert: they are wrong!

The point of identifying problematic participants upfront is to develop a sense of the likely challenges and plan for them. Then, we let go of the person-specific information. Why? I want to be ready with facilitation strategies while engaging these individuals with an open mind. In this case, I never looked at the list of names again until after the workshop.

Strategy 2: Be Strong Right Away

Already anticipating how we’d handle attempts to negatively exert themselves prepared us to deal with their challenges while giving them room when they constructively contributed ideas. 

Two curmudgeons surfaced right away during our icebreaker exercise about who’d play them in a movie based on the workshop. Each said they would play themselves since nobody could play them. I said to one of them, who’d already openly heckled me in front of the group, “I thought Statler or Waldorf (the Muppet hecklers) would play you” That brought a gasp from the group since people must not routinely stand up to this guy. 

Facilitating Curmudgeons

The other displayed his frustration by parroting back the exact prompts I was using when he dove in with an idea intended to demonstrate how silly the process was. To his visible surprise, I said, “Yes, that’s exactly the kind of idea we want. I’ll write it down, and let’s build on it!” 

In cases like this, it’s vital to meet them directly and without hesitation. Demonstrate that you are ready to challenge them when they show-off while encouraging them if they contribute.

Strategy 3. Let Them Pontificate Occasionally

People who know they are the smartest people in the room want to let everyone else know how smart they are. And, typically in a business setting, these guys (because it’s nearly always boomer men) do have smarts and experience. We simply need them to not use those as clubs to drown out other participants through over-sharing. 

The strategy? Anticipate beforehand what productive contributions will look and sound like. If a curmudgeon is sharing perspectives and ideas that move the group forward, I’ll create space for them to keep going so they feel as if they are being heard. 

I also will try to privately engage them in rope-a-dope fashion and let them explain to me what they know, how diligently they are putting aside personal expertise and knowledge of what won’t work to be good participants, and demonstrating their deep understanding of how I’m doing my job. This private airspace to talk helps keep them more contained during small group ideation.

Strategy 4. Let Others Help Manage Curmudgeons

Other strong personalities typically surface to help manage the difficult ones. Before a workshop starts, we try to get our client contacts to play this role. When that’s not viable, look for others who are confident enough to help manage strong and difficult personalities. Once these people surface, I work to get a relationship going with them, gaining a sense of how they see and handle the curmudgeons. Having a brief conversation often puts these folks on alert that I support them stepping up and countering curmudgeons who are trying to undermine our shared successful outcome.

Handling Your Difficult Personalities

These strategies work to handle problem personalities. If you employ them (or others), I’d love to know how they work for you. 

I’d love even more if you contacted me at Brainzooming to have us design and facilitate your next strategy and innovation workshop. We can take on the challenge of getting everyone, even the curmudgeons, to contribute amazing new ideas for your success!  – Mike Brown


Collaborative strategic planning