Management Articles


Dealing with Difficult People: the Idealist

By: Susan Dunn

Susan Dunn, The EQ Coach, coaches individuals and executives in emotional intelligence, and offers workshops, presentations, trainings, Internet courses and ebooks.  She is a regular presenter for the Royal Caribbean and Costa cruiselines.  Visit her on the web at and for FREE ezine.

True idealists (as defined by Keirsey) make up only about 1/10th of the population, which you may think is a good thing if you’re the hard-driven, nose-to-the-grindstone, bottom-line type.

Like other "difficult" types, they can make fantastic contributions to your relationship or organization if you understand how to deal with them and their lack of practicality.

As Keirsey ( defines them, "educationally they go for the humanities, avocationally for ethics, and vocationally for personnel work." They're people who are guided by ideals, and are more interested in ideas than practical action. This can make them both slow out of the gate, and agitators if they thing something is "wrong."
  1. They Will Ferret Out Unethical Behavior.

    Therefore, if you intend to hire one, you'd better have your ducks in a row and your ethics together (if you don’t, why don’t you?). On the other hand, if you have a multicultural or diversity program to introduce, they would be the ones to do it, and they’ll also know who’s mobbing, harassing and bullying others.

  2. Translate Abstract to Concrete for Them.

    They tend to be highly intelligent as well as intellectual and abstract. This means they may know what they want, and even how they'll get there (many are great strategists), but be either unable to explain it to others, or too impatient. Either trust them to accomplish what you ask them to do their own way, or ask them specifically for step-by-step methods.

  3. Don't Underestimate Their Power of Influence. They Aren't Light-Weights.

    Like many "difficult" types, they represent something within us all. Idealists appeal because they have a light that shines. They're interested in a better world, after all, and so are we, but who's got the time?

    Consider Gandhi whose "nobly principled, highly disciplined, courageously ethical strategy of non-violent passive resistance ... eventually brought the British to their knees." (Source: Keirsey)

    So keep the Idealist channeled and be watching your ranks. If you're playing fast-and-loose, they'll be the one to challenge it, and you’d rather have them coming to you than just talking about it. If you can institutionalize such a program – how things are done, and how people are treated – the idealist would be ideal (smile) for this position. One US insurance corporation has an ethics hotline, for instance, and someone was put in charge of it. Perhaps an idealist.

  4. Redirect Their Idealism When it Gets in the Way of Day-to-Day Functioning.

    Help them find a time and place for it. Empathize with the feelings. Turn them back to the task.

  5. Don't Put Them in Positions Such as Quality Control Unless You Want to Explain the Difference Between 'Perfect' and 'Good Enough' a Million Times.

  6. Assign Them Teaching and Mentoring Tasks.

    Their gentle personalities make them a natural at this. They're usually excellent at cooperative goals.

  7. If You Give Them a Management Task, Remind Them They Can't Just Think or Say How it Should Be, and Should Be Done.

    They will have to get people to do it -- human beings who engage in human error, who may not want to, or don’t know how to.

    In other words, it will involve getting their hands dirty.

  8. Let Them be Go-Betweens.

    If they understand the project and mission, they make wonderful ambassadors and diplomats. They don't need to be representing a nation, they'll do this with dignity and excellence within your family and organization.

  9. When You Ask Them Something, Add at The End, 'And How Would We Do This in Practical Steps?'

    Else they'll stay up in their head. Do NOT reward them for perfectionism. Excellence, yes. Perfect? It's only, well, an ideal, yes?

  10. Keep Them from Devoting an Undue Amount of Time to the Underdog.

    Unless that's their job, of course.

    Let them know that's your job (or someone else's within your organization or family). They're natural-born advocates, making great coaches, lawyers, social workers, teachers, and mediators.

© copyright, Susan Dunn, 2004

Other Articles by Susan Dunn

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. ManagerWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. ManagerWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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