“If you could make God bleed, people will cease to believe in Him… there will be blood in the water, and the sharks will come.” Ivan Vanko (actor Mickey Rourke), Iron Man 2.

In the movie Iron Man 2, the hero, Tony Stark (actor Robert Downey, Jr.) has made the world aware of his dual identity, billionaire inventor and superhero Iron Man. He’s a man in a pressure cooker: from the government, the press, and the public to share his technology with the military (he disagrees), from an arch competitor who wants – any cost – to trump Stark’s inventions and fame, from his assistant, Pepper Potts (actress Gwyneth Paltrow) to get the company straightened out (I suppose it’s hard to be a superhero billionaire and do the day-to-day work of running a company), and from his rapidly declining health (the power source for the Iron Man suit is slowly, but surely, killing him). Except for the superhero part, this could be a generalized description of many business owners!

To make matters even worse, Ivan Vanko, an evil inventor who feels his family was wronged by Tony’s father, is plotting to bring Tony down.

Notice that Ivan isn’t plotting (necessarily) to kill Tony, rather to “bring him down.” Via his Iron Man superhero status, his brilliant inventions that have made him a billionaire, and his “Iron Man defense” of the United States, Tony appears to be invincible. Perhaps he’s too strong to take on directly; too strong to defeat mano-a-mano.  Maybe Ivan doesn’t have to.

I’ve seen this movie.

Not the one starring Robert Downey, Jr., the one that takes place in corporate offices and boardrooms all around the country.  The attacker uses glancing blows to weaken rather than a direct attack to destroy. A full frontal assault would be too obvious and incriminating for the attacker. One would never want to be accused of not being a team player or not operating in the best interests of the organization.

In practice, these glancing blows may involve doublespeak, half-truths, rumors, innuendo or deliberate misinformation on topics relating to the target’s morals, competence, integrity, or reputation. They are usually clever and subtle. They may involve modifying and using information that is technically accurate, but that is presented in a misleading manner or without proper context. The idea is to create uncertainty and doubt about the target; to lessen their credibility. These weakening blows (or cuts) don’t have to be fatal, but it is helpful to have blood in the water.

Two 3-step programs

To be fair and accurate, some people have no idea they are the ones doing the wounding. They are focused on an objective or idea and the pursuit of that goal blinds them to the “collateral damage” along the way. For others, like Ivan Vanko, “making God bleed” is serious and intentional business.  Like most important things in life the steps to making these situations better are simple, but not easy:

  1. You have to accept the other person for who and what they are. It’s not your job to change them.
  2. Until you have solid evidence to the contrary, you have to assume their intentions are honorable. They may be.
  3. You have to check yourself first with questions such as: What’s my role in this interplay? What do I really want in this situation? Am I behaving according to what I really want? Does the other person believe I’m taking them and their point of view seriously?

For the benign collateral damage creator, some meaningful feedback can be very helpful. Often this is best done by someone from the “outside” – that can be outside the situation, or a professional from outside the organization. I’ve seen some almost unbelievable turnarounds through the application of appropriate feedback and coaching. Sometimes this works for the Ivan Vanko’s. Usually it doesn’t. Thankfully, these types are relatively rare. When dealing with them:

  1. Be prepared and have perspective. Perspective comes from asking yourself questions like: “If I respond what is the worst thing that can happen? If I don’t respond what is the worst thing that can happen?” Both preparedness and perspective can come from “walking in their shoes.” What are they seeing/feeling/thinking/believing that I’m missing?
  2. Remember that thoughtful questions are likely to work better than statements and certainly better than directives, and sometimes the best response is no response. Wait it out and see what happens.
  3. Observe. Stop, look and listen. You will do well to pay attention to weak signals.

My friend and colleague Phil Graybeal gave me a great perspective on dealing with, and helping others deal with “difficult” people. He said they are distractions. And more importantly, his mother, Catherine “Kitty” Graybeal, said, “That which distracts you controls you.”

In Other Words…

“No man or woman who tries to pursue an ideal in his or her own way is without enemies.” – Daisy Bates

“Speech devoted to truth should be straightforward and plain.” – Seneca

“There are some that only employ words for the purpose of disguising their thoughts.” – Voltaire

“Dear ones: Beware of the tiny gods frightened men create to bring an anesthetic relief to their sad days.” – Hafiz

“I’ve had a few arguments with people, but I never carry a grudge. You know why? While you’re carrying a grudge, they’re out dancing.” – Buddy Hackett

“Talkers are usually more articulate than doers, since talk is their specialty.” – Thomas Sowell

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” – Hunter S. Thompson, A Generation of Swine

The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress.” – Joseph Joubert, Pensées, 1842

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you place the blame.” – Oscar Wilde

“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” – William James

“The lion does not turn around when a small dog barks.” – African Proverb

In The Word…

“Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” – Matthew 5:37

In Linked Words…

Ivan Vanko in Iron Man 2 (35 seconds into the trailer)